TOKYO >> When Rika Kayama attended a violin concert at a Tokyo music hall in February last year, she was stunned to find a certain famous face in the crowd.
It was Crown Princess Masako, who had long avoided public appearances because of her battle with adjustment disorder, a mental condition characterized by strong emotional and physical reactions to stressful events.
Kayama, a psychiatrist and professor at Rikkyo University, has authored several books on the crown princess and her mental illness.
But on that day, each time the violinist finished playing a tune, the crown princess, now 55, leaned forward and applauded with joy. She also chatted with people sitting next to her, including her husband, Crown Prince Naruhito.
“Her expressions looked rather natural and she reacted vividly to situations surrounding her,” Kayama recalled. “My impression is that she is recovering.”
As Kayama points out, Masako, often the focus of intense debate over gender and tradition involving the Chrysanthemum Throne, appears to be bouncing back from the condition that has long plagued her. Over the past 15 years, she has been unable to fully perform her public duties, often shuttering herself deep inside the Togu Palace in Tokyo’s Akasaka district.
A Harvard graduate, she will become the empress when her husband ascends to the throne on May 1.
When she married Naruhito in 1993, Masako was regarded as a figure who could break the mold of the male-centric traditions of the royal family, believed to be the world’s oldest monarchy. A former elite diplomat who speaks fluent English and French, she had aspired to promote international exchanges through official visits to foreign countries.
But to her disappointment, she was prevented from traveling abroad for long stretches and was instead kept busy with public duties at home.
She gave birth to Princess Aiko in 2001 — but under the Imperial House Law, which dates back to the late 19th century, females are forbidden from acceding the throne. As a consequence, she remained under immense pressure to give birth to a boy to preserve the family’s male lineage. She was diagnosed with adjustment disorder the following year.
In 2004, Naruhito said his wife “has worked hard to adapt to the environment of the Imperial household for the past 10 years, but from what I can see, I think she has completely exhausted herself in trying to do so.
“It is true that there were developments that denied Princess Masako’s career up to then,” he added.
The crown prince’s remarks triggered a continuous public debate over what roles women should play — or be allowed to play — under such conservative Imperial traditions.
Many observers argue that the problems Masako faced are similar to challenges that numerous Japanese women face.
The fact that Japanese society is male-oriented has added to the pressure on women of the royal family to give birth to males, said Yuji Otabe, professor emeritus at Shizuoka University of Welfare and an expert on Imperial affairs.
Japan placed 110th among 149 nations in the World Economic Forum’s global gender equality rankings for 2018, the lowest among the Group of Seven industrialized nations.
Kayama, the psychiatrist, said she has seen many female patients in similar situations as Masako, struggling to have children and a career at the same time.
“In that sense, you can say Masako is very symbolic of Japanese society,” Kayama said.
In December 2004, several years after Princess Aiko’s birth, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi launched an advisory committee of experts to consider the possibility of revising the Imperial House Law to allow a female member of the royal family to become a reigning empress. But after the birth of Prince Hisahito in 2006, the son of Prince Akishino and nephew of Naruhito, the momentum toward revising the law fizzled.
“The reason why the debate on whether to change the male-successive Imperial system hasn’t really gained traction is because Japan as a society has a history of marginalizing women,” Otabe said.
Royal duties call
However, some scholars say the pattern of putting careers on hold to focus on royal duties is common among monarchies across the globe.
“When one enters a royal family, it becomes essential that they give birth to a successor and raise them,” said Naotaka Kimizuka, a professor at Kanto Gakuin University well-versed in the British royal family. “It’s only once they get child-bearing and child-rearing out of the way that they can really focus on what they want to do.”
Case in point: Queen Silvia of Sweden, a commoner who married King Carl XVI Gustaf in 1976. It was after some two decades raising three children, said Kimizuka, that she could focus on her life’s work — creating a foundation in 1999 for children at risk of violence and sexual abuse.
Still, there are particular reasons why the Japanese royal family is more conservative than their European counterparts. A big reason: the Japanese public, in contrast to those in Western nations, expects the royal family to be completely free of vested interests.
“In Japan, people expect the Imperial family to be impartial and unbiased,” said Hideya Kawanishi, an associate professor at Nagoya University and a noted expert on the postwar Imperial system. “This expectation makes it more difficult for the Imperial family to engage in philanthropic work as freely as their Western counterparts.”
The distinct philosophies about nobility between Japanese and Western societies is stark. Monarchies in the West embody fairness in the form of “noblesse oblige” — the understanding that those who are privileged have corresponding social responsibilities as well. The Japanese public, on the other hand, expects their royal family to be fair in a different way — by treating all individuals equally.
And yet, despite such conservative values, Masako’s challenges with those values may be an element that brings her closer to the public.
“Seeing how people engage with her when she visits areas hit by natural disasters, I get the impression that she is a very compassionate person whom people can relate to,” Kawanishi said. “People can connect with her because they understand that she has had to overcome struggles just like theirs.”