The Chrysanthemum Throne

Like many Americans, I love all things royal, however un-American that may seem.Whether I’m reading about Henry VIII’s doomed wives, Juana la Loca’s heartbreaking spiral toward insanity, or Kate Middleton’s latest fashion faux pas (of which there are few), I am hooked. Monarchies, past or present, captivate me. They act as rare links to bygone days, while posing the difficult question of what’s to come for the future: an enticing combination.

I’m not, however, naïve. I realize that, like their historical counterparts, modern monarchies face many challenges, and that the life of a princess is no proverbial walk-in-the-park. Marrying into a royal family means you lose your privacy, your life, and maybe even a part of yourself. There are expectations and requirements to which you must adhere. And as most of the world knows from the tragic tale of Princess Diana, it can have cruel consequences that mirror the terrible times of old.

Now, there are a few perks, I’d wager. The fashion, for one. Not to mention luxurious vacations, palatial homes, and famous friends. Who wouldn’t want David Beckham to attend their wedding? (Though it was probably better for Alex that he didn’t!) But is it worth it? That’s the reason I still read the articles, the biographies, the scandals. And I bet it’s a question many of them grapple with every day.



Japan, like many ancient civilizations, boasts a royal family. In fact, it is the oldest continuous hereditary monarchy in the world. Beginning with the legendary Emperor Jimmu, whose reign began February 11, 660 BC, the Current Emperor traces his lineage back 125 monarchs, though as we delve deeper into the mists of time, the historical facts of the monarchy fade into legend. However, there is no dispute that Emperor Keitai ruled over 1500 years ago.

While the monarchy has faced many challenges, it has survived. Succession struggles, revolutions, and cataclysmic wars have all jeopardized the emperor’s place here in Japan. But the Chrysanthemum Throne endures, preserving Japan’s culture and traditions along with it.

Today, the Japanese emperor has limited power but many official duties. He is a figurehead for the nation of Japan and remains a prominent part of the Japanese native religion, Shinto. The Current Emperor is credited with bringing the Imperial family closer to the people and working to strengthen relations with his Asian neighbors.

After learning of our transfer to Japan, I began to scour the Internet for books and articles about the Japanese monarchy, and surprisingly the name that appeared most was not that of the emperor or his heir apparent, Crown Prince Naruhito, but the Crown Princess, Masako. Akin to England’s Princess Diana, she was a commoner who married into the royal family and is rumored to struggle with her restrictive role.

I should clarify. Commoner does not quite describe this woman. The daughter of a Japanese diplomat, she lived much of her life abroad and speaks numerous languages. Earning her undergraduate degree at Harvard University in Economics, she went on to study International Relations at Oxford. She then pursued a career akin to her father’s in diplomacy and was well on her way when she met Naruhito. A determined career woman, she refused the Crown Prince when he first proposed, declining to give up her career. Only after his third proposal did she finally accept him, and resign to spend her life in a different diplomatic role as a member of the royal family.

Immediately drawn to a woman of such culture and intelligence, I sought to learn more about Japan’s Crown Princess Masako. Searching through Amazon, I discovered the work “Princess Masako: Prisoner of the Chrysanthemum Throne.” An aggressive title, to say the least. Authored by Australian journalist Ben Hills, the book details the sad life of the Princess, portraying her as a strong woman forced to abandon her true self to conform to palace regulations, most of which are enforced by the Imperial Household Agency.

Hills makes many horrific claims. He asserts Masako was forced to abandon her studies at Oxford because her thesis was too political. He also insinuates that she was pushed to use in vitro fertilization to conceive her only child, Princess Aiko. And he accuses the Imperial Household Agency of oppression, leading to severe depression.

While the writing is a bit dry, the story is painful and difficult to put down, as if her life was composed for the tabloids. The Japanese reaction to the book was swift and strong. The Foreign Ministry condemned the work as an insult, claiming Hills made “audacious conjectures and [used] coarse logic.” Most of Japan’s leading publishers refused to print the controversial material, and even Japan’s ambassadors abroad denounced the publication.

Leaving those of us beyond the castle walls uncertain of the truth. One can certainly argue that we have no right to her story. That, like other modern monarchs, she deserves her privacy and we, the commoners, do not need to know more, no matter how interested we may be.

But I believe it’s human nature to be interested. And while I won’t become one of her groupies – yes she has groupies! – I was certainly intrigued by her. So when I learned that the Imperial Palace opens its gates just twice a year, Dec. 23 to honor the Current Emperor’s birthday and January 2nd for a New Year’s Greeting, I jumped at the opportunity. Not only did I wish to see the inner grounds, which are off-limits 363 days a year, I knew that Masako would be included in the Royal Family’s appearance. And I was, I admit, a bit curious to see her.

Thus, we woke with the dawn, trained into Tokyo, and waited in line for two hours to catch a five-minute glimpse of the royal family. The news declared that over 50,000 people came that day to do the same. And while the grounds are immense, it felt quite crowded (like most everything else here!)

We arrived a little after nine and walked through two metal detectors and a couple of wand inspections (sorry, not a Harry Potter reference) before being corralled into a group of about a thousand. Alex and I actually thought we were sitting pretty. Perhaps we’d beaten the rush, and because we aren’t laden with kid paraphernalia, we were able to skip some of the longer inspection lines.

Haha. We were wrong.


Turns out, we were late! The largest mass of visitors had arrived far before the gates officially opened and were already placed in their groups of a thousand, tens of which stood in front of us. I felt like an ant: tiny, insignificant, and unable to escape the colony.

Eventually, we work our way through the maze, trying to focus on the stunningly green scenery, majestic gateways, and unique architectural details. But it’s hard when your nose is running from cold, your fingers are turning blue, and people on all eighteen sides of you are trying to get just a centimeter closer.

Finally we arrive at the Nakamon, the inner gate, which only opens its doors twice a year to the likes of us. Volunteers are giving Japanese flags to every outstretched hand, and just like that, the herd of visitors transforms into a sheet of white with red polka dots as the waving flags unite.

Crowd Waves


I was concerned that we might not be welcome. Based upon the crowd’s enthusiasm, it is evident that for many (especially the elderly), this is a sacred, yearly pilgrimage, which symbolizes their pride and patriotism. But no one batted an eye. We were swallowed by the crowd and followed blindly into the inner sanctuary.

The palace is remarkably unremarkable. While we waited in a mass of over 15,000 people, Alex and I Googled this historic building. (The guidebook sadly forgotten at home.) Built upon the foundations of the Edo Castle, which was the home of Japan’s 15th and final Shogun, Tokugawa Yoshinobu, the current residence was only completed in 1993. Fires, wars, and revolutions continued to change the historic site, and looking at it today, much of that history seems lost. The building resembles a giant brown rectangle, with thick glass windows that are shuttered tight. For an art historian like myself, it was a bit disappointing. The grounds were, by far, the visual attraction.



But we came today, specifically, not for the palace, but its residents. There is a restlessness in the air as we wait with our new 14,998 friends for the New Year’s Greeting. All ages have come to receive their blessing. Newborn babies gurgle softly against their mothers as fathers try to entertain their older siblings. Teenagers, bedecked in the strangest of Japanese fashions mingle with their grandparents who wear traditional kimonos. The sight is truly breathtaking. People from every walk of life converge for a glimpse of their past, present, and future.

When the royal family steps onto the balcony, the crowd choruses in unison. Children and adults alike frantically flourish their national flag. Cheers erupt. And everyone wears an enormous smile on his or her face.

The royal family, from an American perspective, looks very Western. Dressed in tails and pastel morning suits, they look just like the British monarchy. Even the stylish fascinators make an appearance. The family stands strong and still, waiting for the crowd to silence. Which, miraculous, it does. And soon you could hear a pin drop, as everyone tenses in anticipation of what the Emperor will say.

I wish I could tell you what he said. But it was, oddly enough, in Japanese! It doesn’t really matter, though. It was clear from the expressions of our neighbors, that he was kind, confident, and respectful. Rapt with attention, even the babies quieted out of respect.

Royal Families-2.jpgI shifted to and fro to find a better view. (I had high hopes that I would be considered tall, or at least, average, here in Japan. But no. I am still short!) I spent much of the speech searching for an unobstructed glimpse of Princess Masako. Just as I was giving up, I feel an arm pull me to the left, shifting my position. I turn around to see a middle-aged Japanese woman, smiling from ear to ear, moving me into her own view in hopes I will be able to see. I bow in gratitude and find that here, for this small moment, I can see. I see a family – just that. A family that lives a life unlike any other. A family whose role in life was determined for them. And a family who recognizes that, while difficult, this pre-determined responsibility is important and necessary to their people. Just think of this woman, a stranger I will never see again, who gave me, an American, her view, in hopes of sharing her pride, her nation, her heritage with me. I feel my heart begin to burst as she rubs my shoulder and gently squeezes it. We are beyond languages. Her meaning is clear. “Welcome to my country.”

The address is short and to the point. And then, in an instant, they are gone. As the Emperor leaves the podium, the crowd erupts once more, the sky ablaze with red dots on a sea of white. Truly a sight to see.

As I sit here, trying to force mere words to describe this day, I think back to the few other moments of my life that have affected me with such force. My first visit to the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem on the Sabbath. You don’t need to be Jewish – in fact, I’m not – to appreciate the majesty. Being blessed by the Pope in Rome. Watching as thousands of devoted Catholics cross themselves in ecstasy as they feel the radiance of their pontiff. And my visit to Normandy, specifically the American Cemetery and Memorial. Crying side by side with my father, me thinking of my husband’s sacrifice and my father thinking of his own, his brother’s, his father’s, his nephew’s, and all of these strangers who paid a price so much more than our own.

Yes, this moment belongs on my list. And all thoughts of the famous princess leave me as I realize that the monarchy in Japan is so much more than a spectacle. It’s an identity. I may have come to partake in the show, but I leave feeling humbled by the experience.

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