Getting Emotional: How Media Coverage of Japan’s Imperial Family Has Changed

Society Imperial Family Culture

Sociologist Minashita Kiryū discusses changes in how Japan’s imperial family has been portrayed in the media, with a shift toward more emotion-based coverage.

Minashita Kiryū

Sociologist and poet. Professor at Kokugakuin University, where she specializes in sociology of culture and the family, as well as gender theory. Born in Kanagawa Prefecture in 1970. As a poet, has won the Nakahara Chūya Prize for Onsoku heiwa (Sonic Peace) and the Bansui Prize for Zekkyō. Other works include Ibasho no nai otoko, jikan ga nai onna (Men with No Place to Belong, Women with No Time) and Shinguru mazā no hinkon (Single Mothers and Poverty). Contributed to Masako-sama ronsō (The War of Words Over Crown Princess Masako).

A Yearning for Bright News

INTERVIEWER The many events and ceremonies connected to the enthronement of Emperor Naruhito, starting in May and continuing through October and November, are now over. How do you think this period compared to the transition from the Shōwa era [1926–89] to the Heisei era [1989–2019]?

MINASHITA KIRYŪ In 1989, the imperial transition came after the death of Emperor Shōwa rather than an abdication, so Japan was deep in a mood of mourning. When Emperor Akihito ascended the throne, the female members of the imperial family wore mourning clothes with their faces hidden behind black veils. At Emperor Naruhito’s first audience after accession, though, their lavish robes caught the eye. At the same time, so did those members in wheelchairs or leaning on canes, in a visual representation of the aging of the family.

INTERVIEWER I feel like Empress Masako was treated a little differently in media coverage and the eyes of the public.

MINASHITA There was a time when Masako was viewed with suspicion and faced criticism because of doubts over whether she could perform her official duties due to her health problems. But media coverage has become favorable and mild in tone. This is even though treatment has still limited her appearances for official duties. . . . I think this is probably largely the influence of social media and changes in the mass media itself. Now that individual readers can freely offer their opinions, media outlets can’t rush ahead based on faith alone, and they seem to have shifted to gauging the public mood.

INTERVIEWER There has been little prominence given to debate about the imperial system. Coverage has focused instead on the fashions of female members of the imperial family or Empress Masako’s tears at the national festival and procession.

MINASHITA Following the death of Emperor Shōwa, there was much discussion on the television and in newspapers about whether Japan should abolish the imperial system, which also touched on the question of the emperor’s responsibility for World War II. No doubt, the fact that there were more people then who’d experienced the war was a big factor. And Japan’s economy was soaring, heading toward the bubble era, so there was a sense of security that allowed for serious consideration of the imperial system. But Japan today is struggling to recover from its economic “lost decades,” and its citizens’ lives appear headed for uncertainty, with many concerned about the future, including issues like the declining population’s impact on pensions. There seems to be an undercurrent of desire for some bright news, even if just for a short while. And this brings an atmosphere where nobody thinks it advisable to rain on the parade.

The Ideal Modern Family

INTERVIEWER Do you think the relationship between the media and the imperial family has changed over time?

MINASHITA The imperial family has adapted to the way the media has developed. In the prewar era, the emperor and empress in particular were connected to the ordinary people through the goshin’ei, the photograph of them that was displayed in schools. Under the patriarchal Meiji Constitution, the emperor ruled as the great father of the nation. Even after the war, Emperor Shōwa and Empress Kōjun did not often appear in public together.

By contrast, Crown Prince Akihito and Crown Princess Michiko—whose 1959 wedding parade is said to have contributed to the popularization of television—represented an ideal modern family in democratic postwar Japan. When the economy was booming in the 1960s, more families began living in new, suburban public housing projects. The two royals made a symbolic visit to the Hibarigaoka apartment complex that was completed in west Tokyo in 1960. It’s no exaggeration to say that the now retired emperor and empress constructed the image of a perfect, modern imperial family. Michiko notably was seen raising her children herself—something that wouldn’t have been possible in earlier times.

The postwar Constitution placed the emperor in a new symbolic role that was highly abstract, and it must have been extremely difficult for the public to feel a connection with this. From the Shōwa era through Heisei, Akihito and Michiko made extraordinary efforts to simultaneously win the affection and respect of citizens. Coverage of the imperial family on television played a huge role in this, as the Japanese people were able to find an emotional link to the imperial symbolism.

INTERVIEWER Judging from comments on social media and gossipy tabloid coverage of Crown Prince Fumihito’s family, public scrutiny of the imperial family seems to have become increasingly emotional in tone.

MINASHITA There are two reasons for this. One, as I have mentioned, is that discussion of the imperial family as part of a system is not often heard now in society. Interest has waned in consideration of this imperial system. The other is that in the Internet era, the media has begun reading the public mood and adjusting its output to match. These two feed off each other to the point where almost everything is filtered through an emotional lens.

As a way of winning emotional reactions, it’s also quite easy for the media to position certain members of the imperial family as characters in different stories. For example, some reports make comparisons between Empress Masako and Crown Princess Kiko, or focus on topics related to the crown prince’s family. Crown Prince Fumihito has come under fire in the press, and there have been many articles about his two daughters, covering such topics as the fuss surrounding Princess Mako’s fiancé and Princess Kako’s enjoyment of hip-hop dance.

I think there is dissatisfaction about whether they are fulfilling the noblesse oblige appropriate to their rank. Some people want imperial family members to be refined in their behavior, choose refined marriage partners, and raise their children in a refined manner. Presumably it is because Princess Mako wants to marry someone who doesn’t fit this pattern that there has been so much uproar. And public opinion is particularly tough on mothers who are perceived to have failed in their child-rearing, so Crown Princess Kiko has faced stern criticism. If it was an ordinary household, there’d be no room for complaint in her having successfully brought up two adult daughters and also having a cute young boy. . . . But because many see the imperial family as public in nature, we see these impassioned attacks on any cases of stepping out of line.

An Uncertain Future

INTERVIEWER Under the Imperial House Law, if Princess Mako and Princess Kako marry commoners, they lose their imperial status. There are currently eighteen members in the imperial family, of whom six are unmarried women. And only seven of the family are under 40. If the unmarried women do wed and leave the family, it will greatly diminish the number of members who can perform official duties. The government has apparently begun consideration of allowing female members to establish branch houses with imperial status after they’re married, but there’s deep-rooted opposition among conservatives who fear it would open the way to women or the sons of female branches succeeding to the throne.

The current line of succession consists of just Crown Prince Fumihito, age 54; his 13-year-old son Prince Hisahito; and the 84-year-old Masahito, Prince Hitachi. Tackling the question of how to secure the future of the imperial system has been repeatedly delayed. In 2005, when the number of males in the family was falling, the government of Koizumi Jun’ichirō received a report from a panel of experts that recommended allowing monarchs to be female or from the female line. But that conversation stopped when Prince Hisahito was born the next year. At the same time, some Liberal Democratic Party lawmakers have suggested reinstating the cadet branches that lost imperial status in postwar reforms.

In recent surveys, most of the public see no need to insist on only males from the male line acceding to the throne. What do you think about this in relation to the succession issue?

MINASHITA Probably what citizens hope for from the emperor and imperial family is for them to maintain the lineage, pass down traditional culture, and function as a perpetual symbol of the unity of the Japanese people. But it’s extremely difficult to do all three at the same time. First of all, maintaining the unbroken male line has relied on the premodern institution of emperors having multiple wives. When you consider the average number of children a woman gives birth to, it’s hard to ensure male inheritance through direct descent. At some point, there will be a shortage of heirs.

Regarding the plan to bring back men from the cadet houses, as they’ve been out of the family for more than 70 years, it’s an open question whether they’d be able to pass on imperial traditions in a truly meaningful way. In the emperor’s household in particular, there are many aspects of protocol than only the emperor knows, and this is considered best learned by the crown prince as a child. And the people have affection and respect for the retired imperial couple. If, for example, restored cadet house members came to succeed to the throne, would the public be able to find in them the ongoing symbolism they’re hoping for? As the generations passed, there’s a good chance that imperial activities would come to seem disconnected from ordinary people—as distant, classical protocol performed by people somehow said to be noble. If so, the imperial system would ultimately lose the everyday character of citizens’ lives. I think this would strip all the significance from the concept of the emperor as a symbol.

Allowing monarchs to be female or from the female line, as suggested under Koizumi, would be a reasonable compromise achieving the three factors wished for by the Japanese public. But since that proposal collapsed, politicians have apparently done their best to keep their distance from this idea, because it has the potential to split public opinion in two. It could also lead to an ideological schism in the LDP. Opposition parties have also steered clear, as long as it is not seen as useful in an election. Nobody is stepping up to take responsibility.

A New Kind of Family for Reiwa

INTERVIEWER What kind of symbols will Emperor Naruhito and Empress Masako become for the Japanese people?

MINASHITA The thirty years of Heisei saw many disasters, including the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake of 1995, the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011, and a number of major typhoons. The retired emperor and empress made every effort to visit the affected areas and convey their warm feelings to the people there. There was some griping when the Great East Japan Earthquake led to planned power outages, but when Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko showed that they were also cutting back on electricity usage, these complaints died away. This brought home their major role as a symbol of the people in unity.

At his enthronement ceremony, Emperor Naruhito talked of how he would act as a symbol of the state as the emperor emeritus had done during his reign, and how he would turn his thoughts to the people and stand by them, positioning himself in his words as following the approach of the preceding generation. But it might be wise not to hold his parents’ “superhuman” endeavors too closely in mind. Just as the succession from Shōwa to Heisei brought a shift from a patriarchal to a modern, democratic family, when the present imperial couple got married, many citizens hoped to see them representing a new kind of family—a power couple in which Masako could demonstrate the professional abilities she had developed in her career. But in the end, the two seemed unable to stand up to the weight of tradition and family custom, and the criticism of Masako was particularly regrettable. In this case, too, I therefore don’t believe that they should make impossible efforts to follow in the footsteps of the retired imperial couple. Perhaps now is the time to pursue their own kind of new family model that contemporary Japanese people can look up to.

(Originally published in Japanese on December 5, 2019. Interview and text by Itakura Kimie of Banner photo: People in Tokyo reach for special editions of newspapers covering the imperial procession on November 10, 2019. © Jiji.)

imperial family Princess Kako Princess Mako Empress Masako