The burden of royal women in Japan is heavy

TOKYO – One of the most difficult places for a woman in Japan is within her royal family.

Almost three decades ago, Empress Michiko lost the ability to speak after publicly criticizing her alleged shortcomings as the wife of Emperor Akihito. Ten years later, Michiko’s daughter-in-law, the current Empress Masako, stepped down from public service to deal with depression after the media harassed her for not producing a male heir.

Earlier this month, the Imperial Household revealed that Michiko’s granddaughter Princess Mako, 30, suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder due to the public’s relentless disapproval of her choice of a fiancé. , Kei Komuro, a recent law school graduate whom she will marry on Tuesday.

“She felt her dignity as a human being had been trampled on,” Princess Mako’s psychiatrist told a press conference, adding that “she considered herself to be someone worthless” .

Whether marrying or born into the monarchy, Japanese royal women are held to ruthless standards not only by the press and the public, but also by court officials who run their daily lives. With the emperor and his family being symbols of traditional Japan, royal women are subjected to a concentrated version of the broader gender inequality in the country, where a conservative tendency in society often confines women to rigid roles.

Although Imperial women are not eligible to sit on the throne, the criticism they receive can be more severe than for male relatives, who are protected in part by their proximity to the line of succession.

“Besides working as a royal, you have to maintain a nice fashion, and after you get married your goal is to give birth,” said Rika Kayama, professor and psychiatrist at Rikkyo University in Tokyo.

“Are you a good mother? People will ask, ”she added. “Do you have a good relationship with your mother-in-law?” How do you support the men in your life? So much work has to be done perfectly without a hitch. I don’t think the men of the Imperial family are watched closely.

Japan is slowly changing, with two women running for prime minister in a recent leadership election of the ruling party. And some companies are making concerted efforts to elevate more women to positions of authority.

But in many ways, Japanese society still treats women like second-class citizens. Married couples are not legally allowed to have separate surnames, a system which in practice means that most women take their husbands’ last name. Women are still under-represented in leadership, in parliament and in prestigious universities across the country.

Women who protest their unfair treatment or advocate for equal rights are often blamed for crossing the line. The kind of criticism leveled at Princess Mako on social media echoes the treatment of women who have spoken out against sexual assault or even the labor rules regarding wearing high heels.

In the imperial family, women are expected to adhere to the values ​​of an earlier era.

“There’s this idea that the Imperial Family is sort of timeless and not part of modern society,” said Mihoko Suzuki, founding director of the Center for the Humanities at the University of Miami, who has written about women in monarchies. Traditionalists, she said, want to “project this older, more heartwarming, gender-stable idea onto the imperial family.”

After World War II, the emperor was stripped of his divine status under the new constitution imposed by the United States. And in many ways, the three generations of royal women reflect the evolution of Japan in the decades since.

As the nation shed the shackles of its wartime history, Michiko became the first commoner in centuries to marry into the family. Rather than handing her children over to court chamberlains to raise them, she takes care of them herself. Accompanying her husband, Akihito, as he traveled through Japan and abroad, she brought a human touch to the previously distant Imperial family, kneeling down to speak to disaster victims and people with disabilities.

But when she renovates the imperial residence or wears too many different outfits, the press grumbles. Rumors spread that court officials and her mother-in-law did not consider her deferential enough.

In 1963, after a molar pregnancy just four years after her marriage, she underwent an abortion and retired for more than two months to a villa, as speculation spread that she had suffered a nervous breakdown. Thirty years later, she succumbed to intense stress and lost her voice, only recovering after several months.

His daughter-in-law, Masako, was a Harvard graduate with a promising career as a burgeoning diplomat in 1993 when she married Naruhito, then crown prince. Many commentators hoped she could help modernize the repulsive royal family and serve as a role model for young Japanese working women.

Instead, her every move was analyzed for its potential effect on her ability to bear a child. After a miscarriage, she gave birth to a daughter, Princess Aiko, disappointing those who wanted a male heir. Court officials, protectors of his belly, restricted his movements, leading him to withdraw from his public functions. She issued a statement saying she was suffering from “accumulated exhaustion, mental and physical”.

The most recent case, involving Princess Mako, shows that segments of the public want her to live up to royal expectations even though she will be forced to leave the family upon her wedding. The public savagely judged his choice to marry Mr. Komuro, attacking his mother’s finances (and by extension calling him a gold digger) and calling him unfit to be the wife of an Imperial Daughter. Yet, under Japanese law, Mako will lose his imperial status once the marriage papers are filed.

Eight other princesses married out of the family and were stripped of their monarchical status, though none have fallen victim to attacks like those against Princess Mako.

“I find it very, very strange that the Japanese people think they should have a say in who they marry,” said Kenneth J. Ruoff, historian and expert on the Japanese imperial family at State University. from Portland.

Princess Mako’s father, Crown Prince Akishino, initially refused approval of the marriage after the couple announced their engagement in 2017, saying they wanted the public to accept the marriage before giving their blessing.

Some seem to have taken the Crown Prince’s words to heart.

He “said they should marry with the blessing of the people, even then told him that we have the right to give our opinion,” said Yoko Nishimura, 55, who was walking through the gardens of the Imperial Palace in Tokyo the last time. the week. “I think the Japanese think that since the Imperial Family represents them in a certain way, we have the right to give our opinions.”

Crown Prince Akishino finally gave in, but the incessant comments in the mainstream press and on social media have taken their toll.

Even as the couple quietly prepared for a private recording of their marriage without royal pomp, the attacks have not stopped. In recent weeks, demonstrators have marched through Ginza, a popular shopping district, carrying signs that read “Do not pollute the imperial house with this cursed marriage” and “Do your responsibilities before you get married.”

A writer for Gendai Business, a weekly magazine, railed against the choice of Princess Mako, saying she would “expose Japan to international shame.” On Twitter, some called her a “tax thief,” even though she decided to forgo a royal dowry of around $ 1.4 million. Others accused the princess of faking her post-traumatic stress disorder.

“The public will be suspicious of you if you announce in a few months that you have improved,” wrote one user on Twitter.

Comparisons with the British royal family may be inevitable. Before her marriage to Prince Harry, Meghan Markle suffered months of attacks due to her family’s background. Like Meghan and Harry, Princess Mako and Fordham Law School graduate Mr Komuro are expected to flee to the United States, where Mr Komuro works at a New York law firm.

Harry and Meghan have both spoken openly about the cost to their mental health. Prince Harry’s frankness about his depression following the death of his mother, Diana, who also suffered from depression and eating disorders, has opened up conversations about mental health in Britain.

Japanese royal women could also inspire more discussion about mental health in a country where it is still a touchy subject.

“I don’t think the women of the imperial family spoke publicly about their mental health issues in order to start a dialogue,” said Kathryn Tanaka, associate professor of Japanese literature and culture at Hyogo University. “But I think it’s brave of them to recognize.”

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