01 December 2016
The story of Japan's Princess Aiko, who celebrates her 15th birthday today, started long before she was born in 2001. It actually started in 1987 at a tea party in honor of Spain's Infanta Elena, who was studying in Tokyo. There, Japan's Crown Prince Naruhito met the love of his life, Masako Owada.
The daughter of a diplomat, Masako was born in Tokyo, but also grew up in Russia and the United States, where she finished high school. A gifted linguist, she received an bachelor's degree from Harvard University and pursued graduate work at the University of Tokyo and at Oxford University in the United Kingdom, while pursuing her own career in diplomacy. When she met the prince, she was firm in her refusal to marry him -- she knew that life as an imperial wife would have a drastic impact on her own hopes and dreams. For a couple of years, though, the media was relentless; what Japan have its own Princess Diana? The establishment was less enamored: Masako's grandfather had been involved in dumping mercury into a river and causing an environmental disaster in the 1930s that has impacted nearly 3,000 people to date.
Publicly, it appeared that the couple broke off their relationship but Naruhito was a persistent young man. No matter how many times he proposed, Masako always declined. In the meantime, his younger brother Prince Akishino married and started his own family. At last, Naruhito devised a winning argument: being a Crown Princess is a diplomatic role! Masako finally accepted and royal wedding fever swept the country.
But, there was no fairytale ending. Masako struggled under the stifling strictures of Japan's Imperial Household Agency (IHA). Even more desperately, she failed at the one true responsibility of a Crown Princess by not producing an heir. She and Naruhito struggled with fertility. It is not truly known if or how many failed pregnancies she may have endured. One pregnancy was announced six years after the wedding, with the miscarriage announcement before long. This deeply painful and personal tragedy was played out against a backdrop of IHA pressure and criticism as well as national and media scrutiny.
When Masako finally gave birth to her little girl in 2001, the couple and the nation was elated. An imperial heir at last! Except the baby, who was given the personal name Aiko (meaning "person who loves others") and the imperial name Princess Toshi ("person who respects others"), was not an imperial heir. No matter how many others she may love and respect, as a female, Aiko is barred from Japan's Chrysanthemum throne thanks to the Constitution that the U.S. helped Japan write after World War II. No boy, no heir. Even Naruhito's brother Akishino had only produced two daughters. There were no more princes in the imperial line. At first, there was little concern. If Masako could have one child, she could have another. Except, she didn't.
A year after Aiko's birth, it was announced that Masako was withdrawing for a time from public duties due to what was later labeled an adjustment disorder. The pressure had led to a breakdown of sorts. The public and even the government began to soften. If Japan considers itself a modern nation, why should its imperial succession laws be so misogynistic? The prime minister even announced that they were working on a new law that would allow Aiko to one day become empress.
Then, a miracle happened. An imperial pregnancy was announced, but not for Masako. Prince Akishino's wife Kiko gave birth to a baby boy just days before her 40th birthday and 12 years after the birth of her last child. Immediately all talk of imperial succession law was dropped and the new baby Prince Hisahito was celebrated as the eventual heir. Aiko was pushed permanently perhaps to the sidelines.
Beyond her role in the imperial family, Aiko seemed to thrive. She showed interest and talent in music and poetry. While her mother continued to struggle with her illness, her father proved himself her protected as he had promised her upon their engagement. He caused quite a stir by speaking out publicly to denounce the unfair pressure that had been placed upon her and naming this as the cause of her illness. Over the years, he has spoken openly of the stress on Masako and has asked for public understanding and support. He has also been extremely visible in his hands-on approach to fatherhood, setting an example that is not common in Japan today. He is often seen holding his daughter's hand and attending her various school, musical and athletic activities.
Despite Naruhito's clear love and devotion to his wife and his daughter, they are both now struggling. Several years ago, Aiko and some of her classmates were bullied by other students. The princess stayed home for some time, returning to school with her mother in attendance upon advice of her doctors. At the same time, Masako has continued to cancel some of her public engagements even though very few are scheduled for her. Much more seriously, Aiko essentially stopped attending school late in September through early November this year, officially due to exhaustion and stress. Imperial doctors announced that they found no illness, although this diagnosis certainly only refers to physical ailments as opposed to possible mental health issues. Since then, Crown Princess Masako has canceled more engagements to care for her daughter.
This issue arose just a month after Naruhito's father, Emperor Akihito, publicly indicated that he may soon abdicate the throne due to advancing age. While Aiko cannot ascend the throne, her father is slated to be the next emperor. It is impossible to know what impact his new role would have on his clearly over-stressed wife and daughter, but some are speculating that it could be a positive change. Perhaps as empress, Masako will feel more in control of her life. Whatever happens, I am sure that Naruhito will remain as deeply involved and deeply loving as he has already shown himself to be.
As Aiko celebrates her 15th birthday today, I wish her a speedy and lasting recovery and all good things for a future filled with joy.