Tokyo: Standing in drizzle under a red umbrella near the forested entrance of one of Tokyo’s most famous shrines, Junko Shinohara, 55, an office worker, muses about her country’s soon-to-be empress.
“Ah yes, Masako-san. She is very clever but has had a difficult time. It’s been hard for her to shine as she is kept inside a box. But I hope this will change,” she says under the torii gates of the Meiji Shrine dedicated to the deified spirits of former Japanese royalty.
Masako Owada, the crown princess known endearingly as Masako-san, is about to assume one of the oldest titles in the world — and the pressure is already building on her and her country.
On Wednesday, just hours after Emperor Akihito takes the historic step of abdicating, Japan will celebrate the arrival of a new emperor and empress in the form of his son, Crown Prince Naruhito and his wife — Masako-san.
The moment will, quite literally, mark the start of a new chapter for modern Japan as the 30-year Heisei era will come to an end, and a new era called Reiwa — “beautiful harmony” — will commence.
The Chrysanthemum Throne — one of the world’s oldest monarchies and still deeply respected in Japan — is more often associated with tradition, rituals and symbolic ceremony than modernity. However, for many Japanese, the incoming couple have ignited hopes of a more modern chapter: they are both highly educated, multilingual and deeply involved in global issues such as global warming and child poverty.
But it is Princess Masako whom many Japanese will be watching particularly closely. Educated at Harvard and Oxford, she was famously one of only three women out of 800 applicants to pass an entrance exam to Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1987, leading to a high-flying diplomatic career.
Tough to fit in
After marrying her husband in 1993, however, her struggles to adapt to traditional Imperial life were well documented. Reportedly facing intense pressure to produce a male heir (their only child, a daughter, was born 17 years ago), she suffered stress-induced “adjustment disorder”, causing her to disappear from the public spotlight for years.
That hasn’t stopped many Japanese, particularly women, pinning their hopes — albeit cautiously — on her becoming a much-needed catalyst for modernisation.
Her apparent pressures in conceiving a male heir also tap into growing calls to reform the fast-shrinking Imperial family’s controversial male-only succession rules, with the issue high on the government’s agenda to discuss following the abdication.
After Crown Prince Naruhito becomes emperor, there will be just three male heirs: his younger brother Prince Fumihito, 53, his uncle Prince Hitachi, 83, and his nephew 12-year-old Prince Hisahito.
And so it is upon the young shoulders of Prince Hisahito that the future fate of the Imperial family — mythical descendants from the legendary sun goddess Amaterasu — will no doubt weigh heavily: if he does not have a son when he is older, as current laws stand, the existence of the family will be endangered.
The delicate situation was brought into sharp relief yesterday (Saturday) when two kitchen knives were found at his school desk, with security camera footage showing a suspicious man trespassing on the grounds.
There remains little political will to amend male-only succession laws, Government officials recently called to delay discussions on male-only succession until next autumn or spring.
Shinohara reflected on the princess: “She probably wants to change things but will have to deal with tradition and history getting in her way, but I think she can be a good role model. Traditions should be kept but the Imperial family needs to be more in tune with modern times. It shouldn’t matter if it’s a man or a woman succeeding.”
Junko Nakazato, 29, a beauty worker from Tokyo, added: “Everyone feels a bit sorry for the princess to be honest. She has been trapped since she was married. But I hope that succession laws will change if it’s needed to keep the Imperial family alive.”
The nation has been abuzz with new products and services relating to the arrival of a new era and the transition.