Of The Chrysanthemum Throne And Japan's Empress Masako

Do Western books about the empress do their readers a service?

Of The Chrysanthemum Throne And Japan's Empress Masako

The uncommon topic that I have chosen for this essay involves a couple of books—one loosely history/biography, the other fiction/literature—neither of which I particularly admire. Both are about the revered Empress of Japan, whom I actually admire greatly.

I hold a doctorate degree in English, and teach English at the college level, so I am always reading books on topics that fascinate me. When I was younger I was excited to find two books on Amazon that were apparently about Masako—although at that time she was princess, not empress. I decided to read both of those cover to cover, and ended up being bitterly disappointed. Bitterly.

The first was Ben Hills’s ridiculous book on Masako that referred to her in the title as the Prisoner of the Chrysanthemum Throne. I always tell my students that this is the oldest uninterrupted monarchy (throne) of the world, and hence merits great respect. It does not hold family-members prisoner against their will, as the fate of imperial-born Princess Nori testifies (she married a commoner). I am Asian myself and my South Asian roots mandate that I have an in-built respect for hierarchy and age, regardless of whether it is the age of individuals or institutions. The second was John Burnham Schwartz’s more politely written book, The Commoner, which is a fictionalized version of Masako’s ‘life’ as well as her predecessor Empress Michiko, whom I also greatly admired (for her grace and poise).

I will address these in more detail later in this essay, but first I will underscore why Japanese female royals intrigue me so much.

Empress Michiko belonged to a generation well before mine—I was born in 1970—but I can easily appreciate and understand why she was so revered by her people. She was a gently impressive lady in every major sense of the old-fashioned word: pleasant, feminine, kind-looking and sympathetic. I am sure these qualities are also present in the present emperor, whose upbringing must have owed much to his mother’s influence as well as his revered father. But I remember that when Masako married Prince Naruhito, Western media appeared to be caught in the grip of Masako fever, and TIME magazine, among other publications, made a great fuss over the marriage. I can equally understand why the Japanese imperial family were hesitant to let this media circus go on and on. Gradually we heard and saw very little of the princess in the English-speaking media, though I am sure there were good reasons for this.

However, Mr Hills was determined to write something about the princess that would generate sales the world over, and according to his own words, the Japanese cooperated with him up to a point, even going so far as to provide him with some fine photographs of the royals, which ultimately in my opinion is the only reason to purchase the book. That he ran into issues with the governmental and imperial kunaicho [bureaucrats] is hardly surprising since Mr Hills writes with some level of spirit but no grace or diplomacy whatsoever. His book gives some background information regarding both the prince and princess, and then moves on into wild speculation and unsubstantiated narrative.

Does this book do readers a service? The answer is sadly, no. Definitively, no. They learn very little other than some biographical facts about the princess and her family. Following this Hills starts messing around with our heads and hearts (not to mention those of his authorial subject) and commenting on things like fake pregnancies and mental disorders. Exactly what is a reader to learn from this? The answer: nothing. So what was the point of publishing this book other than to create sensationalism? Answer: nothing.

But my main problem was that the Japanese themselves have not had a useful book written on Princess/Empress Masako translated into English and made available to interested readers. It is hardly fair to expect Ben Hills to be the only ‘major’ English language biological source on Masako Owada. Indeed, I will go so far as to say that this is not simply a disservice to our youth—it is tantamount to a crime.

The fictional text The Commoner, was more sympathetically and gracefully written, but it offers no substantial insights into the situation of either the present or the former empress. One can argue that Schwartz had a certain amount of political license, given that the book is based on creativity not fact. However, he could have done a whole lot more in terms of background research in order to tactfully provide an authentic picture of some of the challenges faced by major Asian royals. That he did not do so, and instead had the former empress helping her daughter in law ‘escape’ and go off into the sunset (God only knows where) is bothersome in the extreme. It just seems terribly far-fetched.

Again: could the Japanese not have had a fine novel written by a notable Japanese author on this topic and had it translated into English for the benefit of both discriminating senior readers like myself and susceptible readers like young people of the English-speaking world? It is certainly a point worth pondering.

Masako gave up a seriously promising career as a diplomat in order to marry the love-struck Naruhito. Perhaps that itself would be a point worth exploring, and expounding on the empress’s past success would hardly blow apart Japanese imperial mystique.