The Empress’s Tears

Society Imperial Family

Empress Masako was seen wiping her eyes during enthronement celebrations. Contemplating the meaning of the tears, a reporter reflects on a conversation he had with Masako 30 years ago amid rumors she would marry into the imperial family.

A Phone Call from Masako

Like many people around Japan, I tuned in on November 10 to view the imperial procession celebrating Emperor Naruhito’s enthronement. As I watched the customized convertible carrying the royal couple wind its way through Tokyo, I was surprised to spot Empress Masako with a tear in her eye. This was not the first time—she had cried at an event the previous day as well. It is very unusual to see a member of the imperial family become emotional, and I wondered what it was that had moved Masako to tears.

Empress Masako is seen dabbing her eyes along the parade route.
Empress Masako is seen dabbing her eyes along the parade route.

At a celebration the evening before the parade, Masako was seen furtively wiping her eye at the end of a performance by pop group Arashi; the tear seemingly appeared as the band crooned the final phrase “It’s alright—let’s walk together.” Watching the scene, I was reminded of how as crown prince, Naruhito had won Masako’s heart with a promise to protect her for his entire life.

For the royal couple, the road to marriage was not without its hitches. In 1989, I interviewed Masako, then a budding diplomat at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, over the phone. Masako—she still went by her maiden name Owada then—had been shortlisted as a potential bride to the crown prince, and I had chased her halfway around the world to Oxford, where she was studying, in the hope of a scoop. While she did not speak directly to the possibility of marriage, she told me that she would not be leaving the ministry, which I interpreted as meaning she had no intention of joining the imperial family.

Owada Masako while at Oxford.
Owada Masako while at Oxford.

A Princely Promise

Much to my surprise, though, the couple announced their engagement four years later. Listening to the crown prince, Masako at his side, describe how he had vowed to protect his bride-to-be forever, I realized why she had changed her mind. It must have been the words of the future emperor that convinced her to abandon her career as a diplomat and join the imperial household.

As crown princess, however, Masako was plagued by health problems and spent many years convalescing. She was frequently bashed in the media and behind the scenes, and I was surprised when later Crown Prince Naruhito in decrying the personal attacks against his wife leveled criticism not only at the Imperial Household Agency but also the Imperial family itself. I realized then that Naruhito was fighting a lonely battle to stay true to his promise to protect his wife. While the last 25 years have not been plain sailing for the royal couple, Naruhito has indeed stayed at Masako’s side and protected her. Masako may have shed tears at the ceremony out of gratitude to her husband. With over 120,000 well-wishers attending the parade, her tears might also have been in recognition that with the turmoil of the past finished, the Japanese people have embraced her.

The royal couple wave to onlookers at the imperial procession.
The royal couple wave to onlookers at the imperial procession.

A Time for Change?

Another possibility is that the empress’s tears were simply a sign of her relief at all the official events being over. The long schedule of ceremonies gave us all a glimpse of just how hard a job the imperial couple has.

Naruhito is 59 and Masako 55. While I am only a few months older than the emperor, I recently retired from my job when I turned 60. Although I continue to work on a part-time basis, I take things easy these days, telling myself there is more to life than work.

Emperor Naruhito is flanked by attendants at the Daijōsai in the early hours of November 15.
Emperor Naruhito is flanked by attendants at the Daijōsai in the early hours of November 15.

The emperor, on the other hand, has just started to reign and might perform his royal duties for another 20 or 30 years. It all seems a bit unfair. For instance, the Daijōsai, an ancient ceremony to give thanks for a good harvest, dragged on into the wee hours. Conducting such arduous rites must have been hard on someone who is pushing 60. Perhaps it is time for the imperial family to seriously rethink the way it works, including rekindling the debate over restoring the cadet lines or paving the way for a female emperor.

(Originally published in Japanese on FNN’s Prime Online on November 15, 2019. Written by Fuji TV Head News Analyst Hirai Fumio. Translated by Nippon.com.)

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