Award-winning writer challenges Japan's ultimate taboo on behalf of Japanese

Sunday, March 04 2007 @ 03:37 AM JST

Contributed by: Y.Yamamoto

Chapter I, Article 1 of the Constitution defines the Emperor's role like this: "The Emperor shall be the symbol of the State and of the unity of the people." In fact, though, it remains ambiguous what exactly the former living god has transformed itself into after the war defeat to perform the constitutional duty newly assigned to it. It also falls short of describing the role to be played by the symbol's spouse.

In his controversial book Princess Masako - Prisoner of the Chrysanthemum Throne (Random House Australia, 2006), Ben Hills looks to have felt an urge to fill the gap for the Japanese who have remained uncomfortable with their fundamental law since its promulgation six decades ago. The author is one of Australia's leading investigative journalists and a winner of the Walkley Award, Australia's Pulitzer Prize, and was stationed here for three years in the 1990s as a Tokyo correspondent.

Back in 2000, an equally intriguing book titled Closing the Shop was released from Princeton University Press. Its author, Laurie Anne Freeman, mercilessly uncovered the dark secret about Japan's 117-year-old Kisha kurabu (press club) system which she calls the information cartel. Even though not a single "independent" publisher, to date, has dared to publish its Japanese version simply because putting the very foundation of the fourth estate in question is an absolute no-no in this country, that has left the other one of the two ultimate taboos to be challenged by another insightful and courageous author - the Imperial institution, which Douglas MacArthur decided six decades ago to let go unpunished for its war responsibility just for practical reasons. That's where Ben Hills came in.

Under the circumstances it was only to be expected that on February 13, the Japanese Foreign Ministry called a press conference in Tokyo to denounce the author and his publisher, Random House, quibbling over "distortion of facts" and "false and insulting characterization" of the royal family and the Japanese people it represents. Then came the announcement by Kodansha, one of the major publishers "independent" of the Big 4 media empires. On February 16 the publishing company said that it wouldn't go ahead with its original plan to publish the Japanese version of Princess Masako in deference to the tacit pressure from the government. Obviously the same old self-censorship mechanism, which they call jishu-kisei or voluntary restraint, was at work on the part of Kodansha.

As the title indicates, Hills devotes a good number of pages to Masako's personality formed through her extraordinary upbringing and family background. But my interpretation is that his real intention was to bring to light the injustice to, and suppression of, humanity that is not only practiced within the Imperial family, but also spills over into this "unique" society beyond the fences and moats surrounding the Imperial Palace. He took this approach presumably because the exceptionally gifted woman is the only person in the royal family that his readers can relate to as a human being, and yet her trajectory in the last 13 years mirrors all the abhorrent oddities inherent to the rest of the clan. Actually it was a crime committed by the mediocre grandson of the Super Class-A war criminal to thwart the self-actualization of an individual who used to be so multi-talented as to be called a real Renaissance woman.

I don't believe I need to portray the Harvard-graduate and former diplomat all anew. But let me refer to one anecdote from the book which was quite new and impressive to me. At a state banquet Masako, who speaks six languages, "found herself seated between Bill Clinton and Mikhail Gorbachev, chatting alternately to them in English and Russian." Hills quotes the crown princess as saying, "The royal family are not ambassadors. She doesn't need to be able to speak English, she has interpreters for that. Her job is to smile." These were the days before someone told the witty lady to shut her mouth, and still she could smile a spontaneous smile every once in a while.

Admittedly I can't be 100% sure that there aren't minor distortions or misrepresentations in Hills' accounts of the crown princess, her husband who is eclipsed by Masako in many ways, and all the things surrounding the couple. But the author is by far better off than us Japanese to dig out these pieces of information. Judging from the strenuous research he appears to have made, interviewing as many as 60 people scattered around the world, there's no reason to suspect he didn't do enough cross-checking to substantiate these facts.

The author describes all the details involved in the intensive training Masako had to go through before tying the knot with the crown prince. She had to learn to bow to her husband-to-be and future in-laws at an angle of precisely 60 degrees, to walk 3 steps behind the prince, and so on. Maybe it's 45 degrees and 2 steps, instead. But does it matter at all?

When it comes to the acreage of the Imperial estate where Masako has been held incommunicado for more than 13 years, Hills writes, "the oasis of greenery in the heart of the grey city [snip] occupies just 46 hectares," which would translate into ca. 110 acres, and "at the height of Japan's Roaring Eighties bubble, [it] was worth more than Canada." But Gordon Chang, the author of Nuclear Showdown, estimates it at a little less than 300 acres, adding it was "valued at more than all the real estate in California." According to the website of Tsuneyasu Takeda, a great-great-grandson of the Meiji Emperor, the Imperial estate is as spacious as 1,150,000 square meters, or 280-plus acres. Who is the closest to the fact? But who knows? And who cares?

According to Hills the extravaganza of the royal wedding cost us taxpayers, already hard-hit by the burst of the bubble economy, some JPY 3,200 million, or USD 27 million at today's exchange rate. But euphoric economists were saying that in return, the wedding had boosted Japan's GDP by JPY 350 billion, or USD 3 billion. The cost may or may not be overstated in the book, and the contribution in terms of GDP may have been somewhat bigger. But, again, who knows and who cares? This didn't make any difference on the point that the Japanese hadn't learned their bitter lessons that an economy artificially bloated by something that doesn't enrich the overall quality of life is doomed to burst, sooner or later.

Perhaps more important is the fact that it was the taxpayers that had to foot the bill for the nuptial proceedings which were primarily based on the Shintoist formula, as if Japan isn't a secular nation. Although some groups of people voiced their resentment against the downright violation of the Constitution, their voices were almost inaudible. As Hills precisely puts it, the Japanese people at large, and even the royal family, "happily embrace a trilogy of faiths [Shintoism, Christianity and Buddhism]." This is what I have named the "saladization of religion and culture," and which is the surest way to impoverish and undermine our inner life. The bubble economy is called that for the very reason that it further accelerated the erosion of our sense of values. In a sense it's this trilogy of faiths that helped the 30,000 cops mobilized on the W-Day to successfully prevent any major civil unrest.

At any rate, what matters much more than the accuracy of the facts being presented in the book is whether or not he is telling the truth, which is what I'm positive that he does. Sometimes you can tell the truth even without providing a fact at all. While that is not the case with Princess Masako, the protest lodged by the Japanese government against Hills' "baseless claims" to defame the royal family and Japanese people is nothing more than a far-fetched accusation. Overall, I find Hills' "tragic true story of Japan's Crown Princess" which makes "Princess Diana's ordeal look like a picnic" as truthful as it can be.

Actually the sickening tale all started back in January 1993 when Masako finally succumbed to the enormous pressure from those who were enthusiastic about offering her as sacrifice to the Imperial family after a 7-year inner struggle. (It took them 7 years because the crown prince, who is sometimes ridiculed by his younger brother for being "too short-legged and too Mongolian-looking to be the girls' cup of tea," was tenacious enough to keep serenading that long.) After the press conference to announce their engagement, a chief chamberlain of the crown prince by the name of Minoru Hamao openly criticized the Prince's fiancee as "a bit impudent" and too talkative. Actually at the press conference, Masako "spoke 9 minutes and 37 seconds, 28 seconds longer [than her fiance]." Here again, it wouldn't have made the nagging chamberlain look any nicer if she had, in fact, spoken 28 minutes, rather than 28 seconds, longer.

The wedding was attended by 2,700 people including foreign dignitaries. Hills writes: "[But] in contrast with Charles and Diana's nuptials, they have decreed that no foreigners will be allowed anywhere near the actual wedding. [snip]. The business with the bran will be done in strictest privacy." In one of those ritual proceedings, the bride had to "submit to having her belly rubbed with rice bran by two virgin shrine attendants to ensure her fertility." So the recent remark by health and labor minister Hakuo Yanagisawa, in which he likened women to birthing machines, should have come as no surprise at all.

But the virgin attendants must have rubbed her belly the wrong way, or they rubbed the belly of the wrong person. One close friend of the groom confided to Hills: "When [the crown prince] was a schoolboy, [he] had a severe dose of mumps [which may have] caused permanent damage to [his] reproductive organs, leading to infertility." Whatever the cause of the prince's infertility, Masako gave birth to the world's first royal test-tube baby on December 1, 2001 although the Imperial Household Agency and the press club attached to it have since exerted every possible effort to deny the allegation. Yet, still today, there are a variety of speculations over whose sperm was used for that purpose.

The worst part of the story came when it was learned that Masako had failed to deliver a baby boy. Here in this inherently sexist nation, we have Shintaro Ishihara, notoriously popular Tokyo Governor, who, for his part, always represents millions of Emperor-worshipping Tokyo citizens as a cheerleader. His ultimate goal at this moment is threefold: 1) get elected for his third term as the Governor of the capital, 2) succeed in his bid to make his city the venue for the 2016 Olympics perhaps by bribing IOC officers with his affluent expense account, and 3) sit alongside of the Emperor at the opening ceremony of the games. In short the helplessly learning-disabled bird, who Hills exquisitely dubs a Neanderthal, is now planning to give us another adrenaline shot for a hollow prosperity and false jubilations the nation has been dying for since the last extravaganza of the 1993 wedding.

One month before Masako gave birth to an IVF (in vitro fertilized) baby, Ishihara told a weekly magazine that "for a woman (which he sometimes refers to as babaa - old hag) to continue living after losing her ability to give birth is a waste and a crime." Given this climate, it's no wonder Masako's failure to deliver a boy left the Japanese people with a lot of jitters over the absence of a legitimate heir to the throne. Soon after the cursed delivery, the exceptionally strong lady finally collapsed. Palace bureaucrats at the IHA told the in-house shrinks to diagnose her as suffering from "adjustment disorder." While the people were instantly relieved of their headache when her sister-in-law produced a baby boy in October 2006, Masako is, even today, "gradually recuperating" from the mental illness. She still smiles at times but it's a frozen smile.

Rumors have it that the father of the baby boy is a half-brother of the Crown Prince conceived in an extramarital intercourse between the Emperor and an actress, and that Masako's sister-in-law couldn't have conceived him judging from her congenital ovarian malfunction already known to some medical experts. But I wouldn't be surprised whatever was the case with the gift bestowed by the Sun Goddess to help the royal clan out of the crisis of extinction. The whole history of the Imperial bloodline which is said to have lasted 26 centuries by now is filled with birth defects and hereditary mental illnesses caused by incestuous marriages and even emperors mocked up by funny tricks. And once again who cares if they go extinct very soon, or go on engineering the preservation of the freak family tree?

When you are through with Ben Hills' Princess Masako, you will have learned what our Constitution doesn't tell: While the Emperor is the symbol of the State and of the unity of the people, his wife is supposed to represent birthing machines, including defective ones. At the same time, she is an incarnation of all the suffering inflicted upon us ordinary people. In response to my mail of appreciation, the author wrote: "Why on earth don't Japanese people rise up against this censorship?" Admittedly there are little signs that the Japanese will wake up anytime soon from the hypnotic state caused by mesmerists who Ian Buruma calls political sandmen. But some of us already seem to have realized that the princess will remain persecuted until we ordinary citizens can emancipate ourselves from the shackles and the gags put on us. Without this awareness burgeoning on our part, we wouldn't have seen Hills' banned book climb the Amazon Japan's list of best-selling foreign books all the way up to the No. 1 spot, although it slipped a couple of notches to date.

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