PRINCESS MASAKO Prisoner of the Chrysanthemum Throne
by Ben Hills (Random House Australia)
Review by Carol Middleton
published as Glimpses of Masako in Australian Book Review, February 2007
Ben Hills' biography of Princess Masako has a second subtitle: the tragic true story of Japan's Crown Princess. It is a taste of the work to come, of both the hyperbole and the author's tendency to explain everything to the reader. But then the book is promoted not as a serious biography, but as a 'romance gone wrong'. Written by a Fairfax investigative reporter, it reads like an extended feature article, with the historical strands teased out, but lacking empathy with its main characters.
One facet of the 'tragedy' is the lack of an heir to the Japanese imperial line. Crown Prince Naruhito and his wife Masako had one daughter in 2001 after clandestine IVF treatment, but no son and heir had arrived by the time Masako reached her early forties. The debate that surfaced in Japan about the solutions to the problem, including the possibility of allowing women to inherit the imperial throne, is traced through Japanese and overseas media reports and Hills' numerous interviews.
The book went to press at the time of the birth of Prince Hisahito to Masako's sister-in-law in September. It is clear in the final chapter there has been a hasty revision to incorporate the news that a male heir has finally been born to the Japanese monarchy. Unfortunately, there was no revision to a comment in the penultimate chapter that: 'in 40 or 50 years' time...the imperial line will also come to an end.' This is just one of several glitches in a work that suffers from hasty writing and hasty editing.
It is inevitable that Hills would be unable to give us the inside story 'behind the Chrysanthemum curtain'. He only glimpsed Masako once, at a train station. He had no chance of interviewing her or any of the imperial family who lived within the walls of the palace. Of those relatives and friends he had access to, many were unwilling to speak up against the Kunaicho , the Imperial Household Agency, the Men in Black as he calls them, who arrive at Masako's family home as the story begins to take her into their custody on her wedding day.
It is a fascinating premise for a story, all the better for being true. A Harvard-educated woman, who was brought up in Japan, Russia and America and was evolving into a gifted diplomat, is courted by the future Japanese emperor, and finally gives in to his request to marry him. Hills does not claim to understand why Masako made that decision, in spite of the fact that she knew how debilitating the experience had been for other royal wives. He surmises that she felt she might be able to play a role in modernising the monarchy. Nor does he draw any conclusion about her character and motivation, simply quoting the conflicting views of her friends and associates that show her personality was at times westernised and assertive and at others demure and traditionally Japanese.
Hills has an informal approach to his text, a light touch that crosses at times into the flippant, rather at odds with the subject. The lovers are 'star-crossed', a royal retainer 'a pompous old fossil', Masako's ladies-in-waiting 'bitchy biddies'. He has a taste for colourful phrases, jokes and diversions. One superfluous chapter obviously lifts a paragraph from an article by Hills on the coronation of Bokassa in the Central African Empire, concluding with a list of defunct monarchies that looks remarkably like a sidebar.
The most engaging part of Princess Masako is the story of Masako's earlier life and education, mainly because there is more information on this part of her life than her time in Japan. There is a less interesting chapter devoted to Naruhito's education that includes his time at Oxford and as a home-stay student in Australia. The development of Masako's career is an important prelude to imagining the complete change of lifestyle since she has been in thrall to the Imperial Household Agency. Unfortunately, although Hills builds the suspense, the outcome is uncertain. We do know that Masako is suffering depression. We do not know if she is still hoping to produce a son. Hills admits in his preface that this is not the final word on the subject, but does allow himself gloomy predictions for her future on the final page.
Hills states his purpose clearly. As well as writing about 'a romance gone wrong', he is exploring contentious social issues in Japan: the role of women, IVF treatment, attitudes to mental health and the monarchy. It seems the Imperial Household Agency is instrumental in barring changes in Japanese society. The prevailing attitudes and debates are well covered, although there is no adequate exploration of how the Imperial Household Agency manages to maintain its power without challenge.
Hills is married to a Japanese photojournalist, spent three years as a Japan correspondent and is author of Japan - Behind the Lines (1996) . This latest contribution to our understanding of Japan is lightweight, but provocative.
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