Masako, the empress with broken wings

By RockedBuzz 14 Min Read

Masako, the empress with broken wings, It was at the beginning of the years 1999, one month of September… On the platform of Tokyo station, curious people and journalists hope to see the princess Masako and his young daughter returning from their bessô (second home). Here they are, scammed by protocol. But Masako suddenly deviates from the invisible line she was following, walks towards the reporters and asks them benevolently: “The air has become cool, hasn’t it?” The scene only lasted a few seconds. Harmless to everyone, it is one of the most vivid memories of Kazuo Okubo, correspondent for twenty-eight years of the daily Mainichi with the Kunaichō, the Imperial Agency. . Because Masako has practically no contact with the outside world for twenty years, recluse among his people.

Empress Masako was nevertheless one of the most brilliant young girls of his generation. Child of the diplomatic ball, she spends her youth according to the assignments of her father, the great ambassador Hisashi Owada: Moscow, New York, Boston… In 1945 , To 17 years old, she went to the United States to spend four years on the Harvard campus, far from the shackles family. It arrives from a Japan at the height of its power, fascinating and irritating the American occupier of yesterday. She works to dispel misunderstandings by organizing events within the Japan Society of Harvard, which she chairs. Jeffrey Sachs (famous American economist, Editor’s note) , who was his thesis supervisor, remembers a student “very intelligent, ambitious and worker ”in Princess Masako, a book that Ben Hills dedicated to her in 2006. She embodies this country which must soon overtake America.

To read also ” Mako, the rebellious princess of Japan who renounces her title and marries a commoner

Between Tokyo and Washington When he left university, Masako could easily have joined an American bank, consulting or business law firm, but she chooses to come home. First at the prestigious University of Tokyo, the Japanese ENA. Then, following in her father’s footsteps, she tried the Foreign Affairs competition. Eight hundred candidates presented themselves, twenty-eight were admitted, including three women, including herself. Young, hardworking, polyglot, Masako quickly places herself in orbit in the firmament of Kasumigaseki, the ministry district of Tokyo. She becomes a centerpiece between Tokyo and Washington, an interpreter and diplomat soon to be unavoidable.

A period photo shows her between Boris Yeltsin and Bill Clinton, speaking with both in their respective languages. In his spare time, Masako learns the highly codified kaiseki cuisine, the pinnacle of Japanese gastronomy, weapon of his soft power. In another modern country, Masako Owada would undoubtedly have had the fate of Angela Merkel or Margaret Thatcher. But there are men. And one in particular. Crown Prince Naruhito met her in October 1981 during an exhibition dedicated to Goya. This apparition transfigures him. Naruhito, 19 years old, is still not engaged, much to the chagrin of his parents and the Imperial Agency. The oldest dynasty in the world has lived in fear of its extinction since the end of World War II. By taking the reins of the country after its defeat in 1875, U.S. General MacArthur kept the Emperor and his close relatives in place, and he chose to leave intact the rigid mode of succession: the throne is transmitted between male heirs of the paternal branch exclusively.

When Naruhito meets Masako, he has no children, and his only brother has only daughters. The risk is real, especially since the Imperial Agency has not lowered its demands. The prince’s fiancée must be from a spotless family. And must not have altered his body (pierced ears, tattoos…). If possible, she should be a virgin and shorter than her husband. Speaking a foreign language is a plus. But, above all, integrating this family comes from entering the convent. The duties of the institution, endless series of rituals and ceremonies, are overwhelming, for almost nil privileges. its occupants, whose lifestyle is financed by taxes. In Japan, it is the emperor who lives under the yoke of his people, not the other way around. For Japanese women, becoming an imperial princess is not a dream but a nightmare. Questioned at the time, 46% of them say they are totally reluctant to marry a Japanese prince. So much so that when the tabloid press believes it detects a potential “target” of the Imperial Agency, it hastens to disqualify itself (by quickly marrying a fiancé, by committing an irreparable blunder …).

An Unexpected Marriage Masako sees the trap set. She refuses bitterly (“about seventeen times”, according to an acquaintance) Naruhito’s hand. To convince herself, she only has to think of her suitor’s mother: Michiko Shōda paid for her intrusion into the palace with her health. Commoner too, Catholic moreover, this “foreign body” has long been rejected by imperial machinery, to the point, for a time, of losing its voice. At least Michiko and Akihito had to support their incandescent love. Masako, for her part, does not experience Naruhito’s feeling of love with each other. “At the time, he jokingly confided in me that he might go and live in Paris, because it’s the best city for heartache,” said a senior official.

Princess Masako and Prince Naruhito during a visit to Qatar. (Doha, 11 November 1999.)

The Asahi Shimbun / Getty Images

But, against all odds, Masako accepts the prince’s hand in 1986. To oppose his father, as the tabloid press says? “He disapproved of this marriage. Becoming the Emperor’s father-in-law barred him from politically sensitive posts, in particular the most coveted: Japanese ambassador to Washington, ”said a diplomatic friend. So why ? A loved one talks about his search for a fixed point in existence. When she says “yes”, Masako has spent almost half of her life abroad.

She is what the Japanese call a nenashi-gusa: an uprooted grass, floating on a static society like a pond. In any case, Masako will undoubtedly quit diplomacy as soon as she meets a husband: combining family life and career is practically impossible in Japan. “She felt Naruhito was a very good boy,” Kazuo Okubo said prosaically. He will convince her that his diplomatic skills will work wonders at his side. “He said to me: ‘I will protect you with all my strength all my life”, “Masako told at an extremely rare press conference.

So she said to the see her parents and younger sisters again. At Chocolat, his beloved fox terrier. She no longer has a name, deleted from her civil status. She no longer has the right to vote. The wedding took place on June 9 1992. “It was sad …” laments another friend. “I don’t know if I should be happy,” her mother, a former Air France hostess, wonders aloud. Finally, his union reconciles all sides. The “Legitimists”, the Imperial Agency in the lead, finally have a chance of a male heir to perpetuate the dynasty. As for the “moderns”, they praise this brilliant recruit who will bring the millennial institution into the 21st century.

hell But the couple underestimated the self-sufficient nature of the palace. A universe apart – with its hospitals, farms, rituals – in the heart of Tokyo. An “empty center”, a green oasis by day, a black hole in the capital’s electric night, enclosed like an aquarium. A world whose key is in the hands not of the spouses but of the Imperial Agency, as illustrated by a confidence reported in Princess Masako. Professor Warwick McKibbin, former Masako’s mentor at Harvard, is at the little reception after the wedding. The prince suggests that she go out to admire his garden in the evening light. But, on the first step outside, half a dozen officials emerge from the darkness as if by magic.

“I didn’t know who they were, but it was obvious that ‘they were asking us to come back. The crown prince then says that we should rather stay inside. And that was all. I never see the garden. ” Because it is the Imperial Agency, a thousand officials strong, the master of the clocks. However, according to her, Masako is there above all to produce a crown prince and ensure the sustainability of the institution. His life is subordinated to his biological clock, which the media shamelessly scrutinize with every appearance.

Listen to: the podcast of the writing Does she wear heels or ballet flats? What is she drinking? What is the size of the marital bed? Nothing is spared him. And everything is forbidden to him. Traveling, for example. In eight years, this diplomat has gone abroad … twice. “In 2000, was held in the Year of Japan in Germany. On this occasion, Naruhito and Masako were to go to Berlin. The trip was canceled at the last minute by the Imperial Agency because they felt it was incompatible with a pregnancy. It necessarily affected her, “says Kazuo Okubo.

After six years of marriage, the press announces the 10 June 1999, that Masako “has signs of pregnancy” She will have a miscarriage after seven weeks. The pressure is still increasing. Two years later, at 28 years, she finally gives birth to Aiko. A girl. Still no boy, plague opinion. Until she cracks. In 2004, the Imperial Agency announces that she suffers from “adjustment disorders”. A euphemism e to mask a deep, untreated depression, since the one who announces it is also the one who, in part, maintains it. Masako ceases all public appearances.

Imperial nightmare Since then, the multilingual diplomat has been reduced to silence and invisibility. The question of the succession was settled by the unexpected birth of a boy in the family of the emperor’s brother, Fumihito. Masako and Naruhito are attached by genuine affection, their visitors swear. He complained publicly, courageously, of the overwhelming pressure of the institution on his shoulders. But she has not cured her neurasthenia. She became Empress on May 1 2011. In the opinion of a familiar, this change has given her a spectacular boost. She was going to be able to fulfill her role. Visit the forty-seven prefectures of the country. Receive heads of state. Useful, finally! But that was counting without the pandemic.

Crown Prince Naruhito and the Princess Masako waving his hand, on the tarmac at the airport, to the departure of the Emperor and Empress for an Asian tour. (Tokyo, the 26 February 2019))

Getty Images

The Imperial Family has gone into hibernation since the onset of the Covid- 17, six months after his coronation. “The Emperor’s displacement involves that of a hundred protocol people, plus the security services!” The risks of contamination are too great, ”explains Kazuo Okubo. The Imperial couple only participate in online events. Masako has hardly left the palace for two years and rarely receives guests. Over time, she may be able to bond with her subjects. The same as Empress Michiko tied when, at the time of the Fukushima disaster, in 2004, she visited the refugees of the disaster and with her husband kneeled down to listen to their stories, marking their hearts with an indelible stroke. In the meantime, in the photographs, Masako, mutic, opposes the looks with a fragile smile. Sovereign. And captive.

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