Japan’s royal heir seeks a more normal life
By George Nishiyama
TOKYO (Reuters) – As a child, Japan’s Crown Prince Naruhito
led a lonely, stifled existence. Imperial staff decreed what he
ate and whom he met, and even a short trip outside the palace
required huge security and elaborate planning.
Now some people, including the crown prince himself, say
Japan’s imperial household needs to modernize, abandoning
ancient practices which have forced members of the royal family
to sacrifice personal ambition and suppress their feelings.
“I wouldn’t go as far as to say the prince was unhappy, but
I think he felt he had to conform to the system, to suppress
his feelings and to meet what is required by the institution,”
said Motohide Osakabe, who taught Naruhito at the exclusive
Gakushuin high school.
“Unless they move toward changing the system, the Imperial
family’s future won’t be bright,” Osakabe said.
While many of Europe’s royals enjoy an enviable freedom,
the 46-year-old Naruhito and his family live a restricted life
under the constant watch of the palace and the Japanese media.
Naruhito’s wife, Crown Princess Masako, a former career
diplomat, has suffered a stress-related illness brought on by
the pressure to bear a male heir and the difficulty of adapting
to royal life.
The birth of the couple’s only child — a daughter, Aiko,
now 4 — was a disappointment for the palace as under the
current males-only succession law she cannot inherit the
Now Japan is waiting to see whether Naruhito’s
sister-in-law, who is due to give birth in September, will
produce the first royal heir in four decades.
Those who knew Naruhito in his youth said he also suffered
from the burden of his status as heir to the ancient monarchy.
Naruhito’s mother, Empress Michiko, broke with tradition by
refusing to hand her three children over to royal caretakers
soon after birth. Even so, their lives were hardly carefree,
with restrictions on their playtime at home.
“He was always surrounded by grown-ups,” said Minoru Hamao,
a former chamberlain to the child prince.
Naruhito could only have friends visit the palace on
weekends and each classmate had to be invited at least once a
“As a future heir, he could not be good friends with a
particular group of children. He had to treat everyone the
LITTLE FREEDOM, NOT MUCH FUN
Unlike many European royals, Japan’s emperor and his
immediate family rarely travel freely in their private time,
and spend most of their holidays at one of several imperial
“They can’t go to Hokkaido or go swimming in Guam,” said
Yohei Mori, a former journalist who has covered the royals,
referring to Japan’s northern island and the U.S. territory,
both of which are popular getaways for Japanese.
“They can’t have fun.”
Even simple excursions tended to lack spontaneity.
“He would envy his classmates going to various places, for
instance, the Tokyo Tower,” Hamao said, referring to the
broadcast tower that is a popular local tourist destination.
When the young Naruhito finally did get to visit the tower
– which is less than 1.2 miles away from his palace — he
traveled in a motorcade, the traffic lights were kept green for
him and police stood guard every hundred yards or so of the
The crown prince and princess have tried to protect their
daughter from such formalities, and have taken her on day trips
to the zoo and to Disneyland.
Even so, the daily lives of the emperor’s immediate family
remain managed by chamberlains according to a strict schedule.
“So even if you suddenly got an urge and said: ‘Oh, I want
to go out and eat Chinese noodles today,’ you couldn’t, because
your meals are already prepared according to a menu and based
on calorie calculations,” said former journalist Mori.
At times, the young prince gave subtle signs that he’d
prefer to be treated more like his school friends, former
teacher Osakabe said.
Despite an unspoken agreement not to give the prince school
duties, he once received a vote in an election for class
“When the results were announced and there was a single
ballot with ‘Your Majesty’ on it, he put on this smile, a happy
face, that I had never seen before,” Osakabe said.
Naruhito did enjoy a taste of freedom when he studied at
Oxford between 1983 and 1985, a period he has written of fondly
in a memoir, recently translated into English as “The Thames
“As the London scene gradually disappeared from view, I
realized that an important chapter in my life was over,” wrote
Naruhito. “I felt a large void in my heart as I stared out of
the windows of the plane, I felt a lump in my throat.”