[This article is interesting in describing a certain
impression generally spread in the western media about
the crude reaction to press covering the Imperial
family. The blog's owner does not necessarily agree with
the author of the OJR]
"The Imperial family is in crisis, but that's often hard
to tell from Japanese media reports on royalty.
Conservative editorial policies, self-censorship and the
threat of right-wing intimidation prevent the media from
opening a proper debate on the Chrysanthemum Throne's
role in modern Japan.
by Tony Mc Nicol.
Many observers believe that interest in the Japanese
Imperial Household is at an all-time low. The emperor
and his family are often compared to civil servants --
and they are just about as glamorous. Few in number and
entirely supported by the state, generally they are left
to smile, wave and cut ribbons without too much
attention from the press or public.
All the same, in recent months the royal household has
been getting a bit more publicity than it's used to --
and unusually bad publicity at that. The popular Crown
Princess Masako, under pressure to bear an heir to the
Chrysanthemum Throne, reportedly suffered a nervous
breakdown and wasn't seen in public for months until two
brief appearances in September. (The palace also
released video of her playing happily with her only
daughter, Princess Aiko.) In May her husband, Crown
Prince Naruhito, stunned the press and public by using a
routine press conference to allocate blame for his
wife's illness and make a thinly veiled attack on
Imperial Household Agency bureaucrats.
The Japanese Imperial family is undergoing a quiet
crisis. In the short-term it seems likely that the rules
will have to be changed to allow Princess Aiko to one
day become empress. A long-term problem is that, if not
actively disliked, more and more the Imperial family is
simply ignored. Some commentators believe that public
indifference to the Imperial family is the result of its
growing irrelevance to modern Japan. They say it needs
to find a new role for itself before the Japanese public
loses interest completely.
In other constitutional monarchies one might expect that
role to be discussed through the media -- or if the
monarchy really is so irrelevant, questions about
whether the royals are actually needed at all. But there
is precious little sign of that. Instead, reports
largely skim the surface of events, refusing to delve
into more profound and troublesome issues.
Take an article in the June 10 edition of the weekly
Shukan Bunshun. The five-page report promised to look
"behind the Chrysanthemum curtain" and listed "10 taboo
topics" of the Imperial Household, including: "What is
the real cause of Princess Masako's illness?" and "What
is the budget of the Imperial palace?" Even, "Why
doesn't the Crown Prince drive?" and "How good is
Princess Masako at cooking?"
What was noticeable by their absence in the list,
however, were the biggest taboos of all: Namely, any
real criticism of the royal family or questioning of the
role of the institution itself.
Jun Kamei, a writer and teacher who spent 21 years
working for the Shukan Shichou tabloid weekly, points
out that 60 or so years might have passed since people
could be executed for criticizing the emperor, but old
habits die hard. "Freedom of speech and expression are
recognized," he says. "But all the same, those unwritten
rules are left over."
"Not one reporter ever asked Emperor Hirohito about his
responsibility for the war in Asia, potentially one of
the great stories of the last half century." -- David
McNeill, Japan Focus
"(It is) corporate censorship, or self-censorship by the
media," says Kenichi Asano, a professor of journalism
and mass communications at Doshisha University in Kyoto.
Along with the Yakuza organized crime networks, the
Imperial family is the big taboo subject for the
Few journalists are brave enough to step out of line, he
says. "The top-ranking people in the press are mostly
close to the LDP (the ruling Liberal Democratic Party).
Young journalists know also that if they write something
to criticize the emperor system, they will lose their
During his 22 years at Kyodo News, Asano doggedly
refused to use special honorific terms (such as adding
"sama" to the end of a royal's name) when he wrote about
members of the Imperial family. "Always my editors
complained, 'You are against the Kyodo stylebook.' And I
told them, 'No, you are against the constitution.'" His
editors added the honorifics anyway.
A further psychological constraint on those
contemplating lese majesty is the threat of violence
from right-wing groups.
"As long as you don't say anything to resist the system,
it is calm and nothing happens," says Asano. But Japan's
journalists know the stories of those who dare to break
the unwritten rules. In June 2000 Yasunori Okadome, the
editor of a now defunct weekly magazine, Uwasa no
Shinso, received an unexpected visit from two members of
a right-wing organization. After clubbing him over the
head with a glass ashtray, they stabbed him for
neglecting to use an honorific when referring to
Princess Masako in an article.
Asano compares the media in Japan with their
counterparts in the United Kingdom. The U.K.'s Guardian
newspaper, a leading left-of-center daily, is openly
anti-monarchy. In December 2000 the paper pinned its
political colors to the mast, arguing in a leader that
Queen Elizabeth's successor should be replaced with an
elected head of state. Such an editorial stance is
unimaginable in Japan, Asano says.
Despite the self-imposed and external constraints,
journalists left with a hot story burning a hole in
their notebooks will often manage to get the news out.
Stories that might cause problems for press club
affiliated publications reach the public through weekly
magazines. Stories that no Japanese publication would
touch sometimes break in the foreign press.
"It's an odd system," says Kamei. "It depends on size
(of the story) ... the larger the story, the further it
The media don't just pull punches, on occasion they
don't even bother stepping into the ring. Historic news
stories concerning the Imperial family have been
completely ignored by the major Japanese news
organizations and their thousands of reporters have been
repeatedly scooped by overseas publications in their own
back yard. In 1993 The Washington Post showed up the
Japanese media by breaking news of the engagement of
Masako and Naruhito after it had been embargoed by the
Imperial Household Agency.
It happened again in May of this year. Only after the
London Times revealed that Princess Masako was being
treated for a mental breakdown did the story appear in
the Japanese press. That's not to say Japanese
journalists didn't know about it in the first place,
explains Richard Lloyd Parry, author of the article.
"When we heard this story I talked privately to a number
of Japanese journalists, some of them senior, and they
had all heard about it," he says. "It didn't come as a
surprise to any of them. But none of them would have
dreamt of printing it. They could only do that because
Actually, the Japanese press may have something of a
guilty conscience over their coverage of Masako. When
the princess became pregnant in 1999, the media provided
enthusiastic and relentless coverage. Masako suffered a
miscarriage and the Imperial Household Agency had harsh
criticism for the press.
The press club system, often described as media cartels
that deny official information to nonmembers, also
discourages royal household reporters from rocking the
boat. As Independent (U.K.) correspondent David McNeill
pointed out in an article for the Japan Focus Web site,
press club members just don't ask the questions their
interviewees won't want to hear. "Not one reporter ever
asked Emperor Hirohito about his responsibility for the
war in Asia, potentially one of the great stories of the
last half century."
What are the chances of the press opening a real debate
on the Imperial Household? That may yet depend on the
depth of the present crisis. On the surface, it looks
like Masako's plight has been a PR catastrophe for the
royal household. Naoki Inose, a writer and media
commentator, says that the Imperial Household's standing
was already weakened before the present crisis. "What is
certain is that (the royal family's) deepest cultural
and psychological role has become diluted (since the
He believes that the bureaucrats of the Imperial
Household Agency made a serious mistake by forcing
Masako into a conservative role. At the time of her
marriage to Naruhito, Masako was seen as figure to whom
modern Japanese women could relate. An intelligent and
internationally minded working woman, she was the
Imperial family's chance to renew itself for the times.
Reportedly, Masako turned down the prince several times
before being persuaded that she could continue her
diplomatic work as a member of the Imperial Family.
But not everyone agrees that the Imperial institution
has actually been weakened. Asano suggests that the
strength of taboos concerning reporting of the royal
family is evidence of the system's strength. "Many
Japanese intellectuals and journalists say that the
emperor system is getting weaker, (that it is) in
crisis," he says. "I don't think so at all." Sometimes
he jokingly tells students who think the Imperial
Household has no connection with modern Japanese society
that they should start a demonstration outside the old
palace in Kyoto -- then wait to see what kind of
reaction they get from the police.
It's not easy to gauge Japanese affection for individual
royals or for the institution, not least because no
newspaper would dare to measure unpopularity. All the
same, most commentators seem to agree that interest has
been declining quite steadily since the end of the
The public's apparent indifference might be a reflection
of the isolated lives of the Imperial Family. They are
entirely supported by the state and have no assets of
their own. They seem to live in a suffocatingly small
social world. As Lloyd Parry of the London Times puts
it, "They carry all the burdens of royalty without any
of the perks."
They also have far fewer opportunities to be involved
with charitable work than other royal families. The Web
site of Prince Charles, the heir to the U.K. throne,
states that the prince is president or patron of 363
charities. The Japanese prince's site lists just one
permanent post, the Japanese Red Cross.
Several commentators have described the prince's recent
outburst to the media as "a second declaration of
humanity," comparing it to his grandfather's
renunciation of divinity after the close of World War
Few Japanese today consider the emperor to be a god, but
it's possible that few members of the public or media
relate to the Imperial Family as human beings, either.
As Jun Kamei comments, "I think (the crown prince) was
probably saying, 'I'm a human. My wife's a human, too"."
(Story modified on Sept. 24, 2004)