Thursday, August 23, 2007


Princess Masako Revisited

On the eve of the Japanese publication--finally--of Ben Hills' "Princess Masako" for which the author has reporetedly received death threats, Japundit has decided to post a brief review I wrote of the English language version back in February. As for why a book about the Japanese royal family matters in the first place, I'll refer you here.

Japundit Editor's Note: The following review of Ben Hills' book was written in February but circumstances did not permit its posting at that time.

Diana and her glamour and angst are gone. Charles and Camilla have wed. Wills shows no sign of marriage any time soon.

But wait. There's that other royal couple. The one in that far away country. Wasn't there something in the news about how Princess Masako of Japan is seen as something of a Diana figure?

MasakoI'm guessing- and yes, I confess to speculation here - that this is partly how the new book, "Princess Masako: Prisoner of the Chrysanthemum Throne" by Ben Hills was born. I say this because as the book traces the early lives of the royal couple - Princess Masako and Crown Prince Naruhito - references to Charles and Diana are thrown in, particularly at the beginning.

It's hard not to read this book, originally written and published in an English speaking country (Australia) as an attempt to introduce an English speaking audience starved for royal gossip to an enticing new subject. And what a subject it is.

The story roughly goes, in case you don't know, that the Crown Prince, educated at Oxford, wanted an independent bride and not some simpering socialite. At 31 matters looked bleak; he'd fallen for a Harvard educated multi-lingual woman named Masako Owada and none other would do. Pressure from parents and palace officials made it possible for them to marry.

Fast forward to 2007, and Princess Masako suffers from depression and hives and is rarely seen in public. The couple has a daughter who might have ascended to the throne, had Japan's far right not insisted on a boy.

The book weighs in a 200 some pages, and while not a groundbreaking example of journalism and keen observations of Japan, it does trace and create a narrative of the troubled couple's lives that one can read in story form for the first time. Publication was slated for Japan, when, unceremoniously, the book was charged as being full of "historical inaccuracies" and canned.

Royal FamilyCritics weighed in. Hills was a sloppy journalist and hadn't fact-checked his book. A comprehensive list of these so-called errors has yet to materialize. The few that have been listed on message boards around the internet, and here on Japundit, have been researched and refuted.

But scandal is good for books these days and Hills now finds himself with a best-seller on his hands. Does he deserve it? Well, that depends on your point of view.

In general, I'm all for the principle of the book.

Japan does have a shockingly retarded sense of women's rights and Hills pulls no punches in repeatedly insulting its rigid, anti-female culture. Again and again we read how Japan ranks last on issues important to women, how Masako was essentially grounded from the international travel and diplomatic role her husband promised her she would play until she "cooperated" and produced a boy. Eventually, the couple turned to IVF, and Hills does a good job in explaining why Japanese society has been so slow to accept this fertility treatment, all the more odd, Hills notes, since Japanese population is dropping.

The brouhaha that has ensued is also interesting because Hills, early in the front of his book, takes careful pains to note who Masako's enemies have been. They are: the Imperial Household Agency, aristocrats bitter to have been spurned by the prince and conservatives in the country. And this is all the more interesting because Hills seems to have inherited the same enemies too. Note, for example the comments lobbed at Hills on Japundit.

But does the book merit banning? Is it simply a bad book?

I think it does a credible job of laying out the narrative as I said. There isn't inherently anything terrible about the book. And for those who wonder why it is worth spending time focusing on the Imperial family: well, why spend time focusing on anything at all?

What has happened to Masako hasn't happened in a vacuum and is a result of the culture in which she lives. Not all women in Japan are subject to the extreme pressures that she is, but what has happened to her isn't an anomaly that happens to few other women.

So my beef isn't with the subject matter.

What I found lacking, however, was any sense that Hills could feel for the Japanese people and for their culture with anything other than the indignation of a foreigner on the outside, looking in, and denouncing anything remotely different. All the Shinto traditions are seen as silly, and Hills even goes so far as to call it "mumbo jumbo." The Imperial Household Agency will never change. I find the latter comment particularly odd when we consider, for example, the recent tomb opening with the IHA finally permitted after years of secrecy. Princess Masako is doomed.

As a reader, Hill's judgment felt self-serving and completely lacking in nuance or appreciation for the culture. And this, to me, other than the fate of the characters in its pages, is the real tragedy of the book.

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