Saturday, September 29, 2007

'Princess Masako: Prisoner of the Chrysanthemum Throne'

by Ben Hills

Non-Fiction/Biography/Japan/Imperial Family, 2006
Tarcher/Penguin Hardback, 291 p.
(#42 for 2007, Non-Fiction Five Challenge - #5)
It’s the fantasy of many young women—marry a handsome prince, move into a luxurious palace, and live happily ever after. But that’s not how it turned out for Masako Owada. A thoroughly modern woman in collision with an ancient system, Masako is the brilliant Harvard- and Oxford-educated woman who, in 1993, sacrificed her career as a diplomat to marry Crown Prince Naruhito. Stealing a fascinating look behind the “Chrysanthemum Curtain” into the arcane world of the Japanese royal family, Princess Masako details how the princess is subjected to the endless superstitious rites of the Royal Household Agency in the hope that she will produce a male heir and prevent the world’s oldest royal dynasty from dying out. Some thought the princess would be a breath of fresh air in the musty corridors of this twenty-six-hundred-year-old monarchy, but thirteen years later, now at age forty-two, the princess is a tragic figure whose struggles with depression have made international headlines. This is a story about a love affair that went tragically wrong.
Many of the reviews on Amazon claim that Hills hasn’t said anything new in this book, and given the fact that it’s impossible to speak with the Princess herself or even to confirm many of the rumours, I guess that’s to be expected. I’ve never really paid much attention to the Japanese Imperial family so for me it was interesting to read about the backgrounds of both Masako and the Crown Prince.
The reason I wanted to read it in the first place is because it has been quite controversial in Japan. (There’s nothing like a whiff of controversy to pique interest!) The Japanese government has supposedly denounced the book as insulting to the Imperial family and while not exactly banned, since the English version is readily available, it looked like it would never be translated. A Japanese language version was originally to be published earlier this year by Kodansha but they pulled out, allegedly because of pressure from the Establishment. A smaller publisher decided to step in though and it was finally published in Japan in August. Apparently both the author and this publisher have received death threats and the national newspapers refuse to run ads for the book. All this when supposedly the book doesn’t tell us anything new! Nothing new outside of Japan that is, where the foreign news hasn’t had any of the restraints placed on it by the Imperial Household Agency that the Japanese media obeys. All in all it’s not a perfect book, and a bit repetitive at times as he kept getting ahead of events and going back, but it was worth the read. It also leaves me thinking (again) about the role of women in Japan, the rigidity of the bureaucracy, and the power of propaganda.

My Rating: 3/5

Article "Why I am Banned in Japan" HERE.
Interviews and articles available from his website HERE.


  1. Thanks for the review, Nat. I remember reading that this book stirred up quite a controversy in Japan. Is it just me or does Princess Masako remind you a little of Princess Diana? Both were young, modern women who were plucked from society simply to languish in a gilded cage. Di tried to make an exit, it is just sad that tragedy overtook her plans.

  2. Hi Lotus. There's apparently now also a Japanese book that talks about how this one was suppressed. It's sad that the Japanese government continues to deny things by pretending they never happened.
    As for Diana, yes even the author compares Masako to Diana. Sadly it doesn't look like Masako will have much chance to escape her cage.


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