Rumour mill in overdrive over Masako-sama

Crown Princess Masako is back in the spotlight - but for all the wrong reasons.

The fairy-tale wedding of the Harvard-trained former diplomat to Japanese Crown Prince Naruhito marked its 20th anniversary earlier this month. But the nation was in no mood to celebrate.

In fact, the anniversary once again raised the question why, since 2003, the 49-year-old Crown Princess still suffers from what her doctors say is an adjustment disorder from having to adapt to life as a royal, and remains unable to assume her full share of royal duties.

There is speculation that Masako-sama ("-sama" is used when addressing royalty), as she is generally referred to here, may even be suffering from depression.

The question whether, and when, she will be able to take on a full load of official chores has loomed even larger of late since Empress Michiko is increasingly showing signs of frailty.

The 78-year-old Empress, who suffers from weakening leg muscles and back pains, recently took a week off due to fatigue.

But she later resumed duties, travelling with Emperor Akihito, 79, to western Japan, where they attended an awards ceremony and visited a precision instrument factory, among other engagements.

Nevertheless the Empress' delicate health, and also that of the Emperor, prompted renewed calls for the Crown Prince, 53, and his wife to take over more of the duties of the imperial couple.

Under Japan's law, the Emperor cannot abdicate but officials can give him less to do. The Crown Prince, who has long understudied the Emperor, can slip into his father's shoes at a moment's notice. But doubts have begun to emerge over Masako-sama's suitability to be the next empress.

Using the 20th wedding anniversary as an excuse, Japan's largest-selling weekly magazines have carried a slew of articles, many of them rather sensational, about the Crown Princess' future. The move is partly motivated by sales. Stories about the imperial family help sell magazines, said Mr Kazuyoshi Hanada, former editor of the weekly Shukan Bunshun.

"The imperial family is Japan's biggest star. Moreover, Masako- sama is ill but there is no convincing explanation why she has been avoiding public duties for so long. So people's curiosity is easily aroused," he told the Mainichi Shimbun daily.

As the articles point out, Masako-sama, a former commoner like the Empress, definitely looks bad when compared to her older role model. The Crown Princess frequently cancels engagements at the last minute, citing illness, yet she is reported going to private dinner parties or joining in her daughter Princess Aiko's school activities.

In April, she flew to the Netherlands with her husband for the coronation of the Dutch king, raising hopes that she would soon recover fully. But this month, she abruptly cancelled a trip with her husband to visit quake-hit north-eastern Japan, after twice doing so, in April and May. They have not been to the area since August 2011.

In contrast, Empress Michiko goes about her official duties even if she feels a bit unwell. Next month, she accompanies the Emperor on a tour of disaster-hit towns in the north-east.

A recent poll by the weekly Bunshun among subscribers to its e-magazine found that only 38 per cent thought Masako-sama was fit to become empress. Sixty-two per cent thought the job should go to Princess Kiko, wife of Prince Akishino, the Emperor's second son.

It has often been suggested that Masako-sama's illness also stems from pressure to produce a male heir. Princess Aiko, 11, the only child of the Crown Prince and Princess, was born two years after Masako-sama had a miscarriage.

Japanese law allows only males to succeed to the throne, and there are no moves by the present government to seek alternative solutions such as recognising female monarchs.

The weekly Shukan Shincho recently reported that the Imperial Household Agency, which oversees state matters concerning the imperial family, had proposed a "secret" plan to the Prime Minister's Office aimed at solving both the Masako problem and the succession issue.

According to Shincho, the plan calls for revising the law to let a ruling monarch step down any time if the situation demands it.

In the detailed scenario, the present Emperor will be allowed to abdicate in favour of the Crown Prince.

After a suitable interval, the Crown Prince is to abdicate in favour of the next in line of succession. By right, this should be his younger brother Prince Akishino. But the plan calls for the throne to go straight to Prince Hisahito, Prince Akishino's only son.

This means that Masako-sama will serve as empress for only a limited time, leaving Princess Kiko to take over as empress dowager until her son finds a wife.

Officials have denounced the Shincho report as groundless and asked for a correction. The magazine has yet to accede.

wengkin@sph.com.sg