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Japan’s Crown Princess set to take a new role as the Reiwa era begins

Foreign Correspondent in Japan, Will Goddard, takes a closer look at the customs of the oldest hereditary monarchy in the world, focusing on the story of Crown Princess Masako and the role she intends to play during the new Reiwa era.

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A new era is about to dawn in Japan. Suffering from ill health, the elderly Emperor Akihito will abdicate the Chrysanthemum Throne in favour of his son, Crown Prince Naruhito, on the thirtieth of April this year. His reign, alongside Crown Princess Masako, will mark the beginning of the ‘Reiwa’ era, as announced on the first of April. Akihito will have been emperor for exactly thirty years; he succeeded his father Hirohito, a world-famous figure from the Second World War, the aftermath of which shaped the role as we know it today. Said to have been founded in circa 660 BC, the Imperial House of Japan is the oldest hereditary monarchy in the world.

A new era is about to dawn in Japan

The Crown Prince will be the one-hundred-and-twenty-sixth member of the dynasty upon his accession. The eyes of the world are soon to be upon him and the Land of the Rising Sun. As with all royalty, he will have to bear a heavy responsibility as the nation’s new figurehead, not to mention the severe lack of privacy that will be afforded him and his family by an ever-invasive press.

Reluctant to share in these trials is his wife, Crown Princess Masako. Preferring to stay far out of the public eye, she has spent much of the last decade in the shadows of Togu Palace in Tokyo. She was diagnosed in 2004 of suffering from a certain ‘adjustment disorder’ linked to depression and anxiety. The details of the diagnosis have not yet been officially disclosed, but public speculation tends to suggest that her transition from the life of a commoner to that of a member of an ancient dynasty was the primary cause.

The Crown Princess has a remarkable background. She was brought up in various different countries around the globe, including Russia, the United States, and Japan. She acquired their respective languages while also studying French and German, even winning an award for her German poetry, despite it being her second language. An exceptionally gifted and intelligent young woman, she went on to read Economics first at Harvard and then, International Relations at Oxford. She was one of twenty-eight successful applicants to the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs from a pool of eight hundred, and one of just three women.

Eager to realise her dream of becoming a diplomat, and unwilling to have her freedom restricted, she refused Crown Prince Naruhito’s proposals of marriage twice. The Japanese constitution does not allow members of the Imperial family to engage in political affairs – something Masako had already planned her future around. She at last consented when he convinced her that she could still practice a form of diplomacy as his wife, albeit in a very different role to that which she had envisioned.

To say that the Crown Princess has had a difficult transition would be a severe understatement. Early on in their relationship, they were harassed by the press. A certain amount of pressure was put on her to produce a male heir, and quickly; the 1947 Imperial Household Law, among other things, states that only men can assume the Chrysanthemum Throne. In 1999, she had a miscarriage, which, due to her position, was reported on the national news. Her second child, born in 2001, came eight long years after their marriage. To the Imperial family’s dismay, it was a girl.

In spite of all the hardships and difficulties she has had to endure, including giving up her passion for international relations and her future in diplomacy, Masako, on her 55th birthday, released a statement. She said, with a certain degree of brave honesty, that she felt insecure about her future role, but would like “to make an effort for the happiness of the people.” Such a statement is very impressive and is characteristic of a particular Japanese ‘ganbaru’, or ‘can-do’ attitude. Not about to be beaten by the male-dominated Japanese Imperial family, the Crown Princess is harnessing a strength borne out of adversity for the sake of her nation.

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