Late on the afternoon of aug. 16, an imperial motorcade departed from Prince Akishino's royal residence in Tokyo and headed for Aiiku Hospital. The main car carried Akishino and his wife, Princess Kiko, elegantly attired in a checkered gray suit. As the unhurried motorcade reached the hospital in central Tokyo, where a throng of reporters and onlookers had gathered, Kiko opened the window and offered the crowd what the Japanese media have dubbed her "princess smile": an enigmatic expression that suggests she knows she's fulfilling her royal destiny. Kiko had come to the hospital to prepare for the arrival of her third child, scheduled for birth via a caesarean section on Sept. 6. Three weeks is a long hospital stay for an expectant mother, but Kiko is 39 years old and her doctors have every reason to exercise caution: she is quite possibly carrying the future Emperor of Japan.
For a generation, Japan's royal family has been gripped by a succession crisis. By law, the throne can pass only to males. But Emperor Akihito's sonsCrown Prince Naruhito, 46, and Prince Akishino, 40have so far produced three girls between them. With the chance of a royal baby boy looking increasingly remote, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi backed an initiative that sought to change the succession rules to allow a female heiress. The plan was shelved when Kiko's surprise pregnancy was announced in February, once more reviving hopes for a male heir. Yet few details of the pregnancylet alone the all-important gender of the babyare likely to emerge before the appointed hour. As Kiko rests in Aiiku Hospital, which was built with funds partially donated by Emperor Hirohito to commemorate the birth of his own son Akihito, she remains deep in the impenetrable cocoon of secrecy and security that is the hallmark of the Imperial Household Agency (IHA), the mysterious government body that manages every detail of the royal family's affairs.
The IHA's careful control over such matters lends an air of orderly dignity to this historic drama. Scratch the surface, however, and there's far more confusion and uncertainty than meets the eye. There is, of course, the possibility that Kiko will have a girl, instantly reigniting the controversy over whether a woman should be allowed to become Empress. There is the strange, anachronistic role in public life of the IHA, once an almighty organization that's now scrambling to retain power and relevance. There are the efforts of conservatives to use the royal family to further their own nationalistic agenda. And there is the larger, hopelessly unresolved question of what, if any, role this ancient monarchy should play in modern-day Japan.
The Japanese imperial family is an extraordinary phenomenon, widely beloved, yet laden with taboos most Japanese refrain from discussing. Even without counting its mythical prehistory, it's much older than any other surviving hereditary monarchy. Unlike European royals or China's ancient Emperors, Japanese Emperors were considered divine beings, direct descendants of the sun goddess Amaterasu. But after the 12th century, they lost most of their temporal power. A long line of shoguns used the Emperors' cooperation to validate their own rule. Emperors lived in seclusion, often serving as little more than figureheads. Indeed, after eight centuries of military rule, according to The Yamato Dynasty by historians Peggy and Sterling Seagrave, many Japanese in the early 19th century didn't even know that an Emperor still existed.
The Meiji Restoration changed all that. In 1867, a group of samurai toppled the last shogunate. Fearful of Western power encroaching on Japan, they placed the 15-year-old Emperor Meiji at the center of the body politic and made him the focal point of their efforts to stimulate a new national consciousness. For the first time, all of Japan was compelled to swear allegiance to an Emperor, and it effectively became a theocracy. Shinto, Japan's native animist religionwhich had never developed a formal dogma or orthodoxywas reconfigured to center on the Emperor. Imperial ties to Buddhism were severed. Codified by a constitution and a flurry of new laws, all earthly and religious power emanated from the Emperor, a god incarnate. Historians bolstered the new imperial legitimacy by using ancient texts to draw a direct line of 120 Emperors between Meiji and Jimmu, the mythological first Emperor said to have begun his reign on Feb. 11, 660 B.C. A number of traditions that many Japanese think of as ancientincluding the Japanese flag and the imperial chrysanthemum sealin truth date from the late 19th century. "I don't think most people realize that the whole current conception of the imperial system is only 135 years old, and a product of politics," says Kyosuke Itagaki, author of a recent book critical of the imperial system.
In modern times, politics and royalty have proved a dangerous mixture. Japan's Emperor worship (as well as attendant views of racial superiority and a belief in Japan's divine global mission) is inextricably linked to the nation's 20th century military expansion, which reached its tragic apogee in World War II. By then, the Imperial Household Ministry, as it was known at the time, had grown into one of the nation's most powerful bureaucracies. It managed Japan's biggest land assets and was among its largest financial institutions, with extensive holdings in the colonial Bank of Korea and the South Manchurian Railway. Given powers to operate independently of parliament, the ministry functioned almost as a shadow government. Its head, Lord Privy Seal Koichi Kido (later convicted as a Class-A war criminal) was Emperor Hirohito's closest confidant during the war. After the war ended, some Allies thought the monarchy should be scrapped. But U.S. General Douglas MacArthur and the Truman Administration decided that retaining it was essential to the occupation's legitimacy, though the Emperor was forced to renounce his divinity. Japan's U.S.-written constitution reduced him to a "symbol of the state."
The occupation saw a massive scaling back of the Imperial Household. At the end of the war, it had more than 6,000 employees; today, the IHA has 1,100. Once an independent body directly involved in state affairs, it's now an arm of the Prime Minister's office with no policymaking authority. Once one of the nation's richest entities, today it makes do with a budget of $260 million a year. More than 1,000 of its employees are considered omote, or "outside the house." Led by the Grand Steward, they serve as drivers, gardeners, teamsters, cooks and white-collar bureaucrats. Positions that are oku or "inside the house," led by the Head Chamberlain, refer to the direct caretakers of the royal family, such as ladies-in-waiting and butlersjobs that were traditionally passed down in families for generations.
Even though it's smaller now, the IHA still wields significant power. It keeps a tight grip on the royal family's contact with the outside world and controls the authorized version of imperialand so Japanesehistory. "Even the Prime Minister does not speak directly to the Emperor without going through the IHA first," says Hakubun Shimomura, a Liberal Democratic Party Diet member who helped organize a petition against Koizumi's panel recommending female imperial succession. The IHA rarely allows any unscripted media access to the royals and doesn't hide its aversion to the press. In 1990, Toshiaki Nakayama, a photographer with the news wire Kyodo, released a photo of Princess Kiko brushing aside Prince Akishino's hair. It was one of the most tender and endearing royal shots ever seenbut, says Nakayama, the IHA deemed it inappropriate and tried to suppress its wide distribution. Likewise, the agency refused for many years to disclose such innocuous details as what dogs and cats the royals kept as pets at the Imperial Palace.
Such reflexive secrecy is par for the course, says Shinji Yamashita, a former head of the agency's p.r. department. (It's typical of the IHA that one of its p.r. managers would feel empowered to speak publicly about the agency only after he's retired.) Unlike most government bodies, says Yamashita, the IHA's priority is to make sure nothing ever happens. "Ever since the war," he says, "the aim has been to cut a low profile, to go unnoticed." He adds with a laugh, "The IHA knows it has a reputation for being shadowy, but it's not true. We are normal peopleamiable, friendly, kind." As individuals, that may be so. But as an institution, the IHA has been blamed for cruel meddling. Exhibit A: the saga of Naruhito's wife, Masako. Educated at Harvard and Oxford, Masako Owada was a rising star at Japan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs before their marriage in 1993. Beautiful, multilingual and confident, she seemed the harbinger of a modern, energetic royal era. But she failed at her first traditional duty: to bear a prince. Princess Aiko, born in 2001, remains the couple's only child. In the eyes of its critics, the IHA was responsible for placing intolerable pressure on Masako to produce a male heir. In 2003, she succumbed to depression, withdrawing from official duties to which she hasn't yet fully returned. In May 2004, Naruhito revealed his resentment. At a press conference, he said his wife had "completely exhausted herself" trying to adapt to royal life, adding, "there were developments that denied Princess Masako's career."
Widely interpreted as an attempt to loosen the IHA's grip on his family's affairs, this rare moment of candor and reproach stunned the nation. TV networks replayed his remarks for weeks, and commentators parsed every inflection, gesture, blink or raised eyebrow for added levels of meaning or pathos. The IHA said it would work harder to attend to the Crown Princess's unhappiness, but Naruhito's outburst failed to effect much change. Naruhito and Masako gained a sympathetic reception from the public, but Akishino called his brother's comments "regrettable," and Naruhito later apologized for "causing trouble for the Emperor and Empress." Despite the Crown Couple's well-publicized fertility troubles and the fact that Masako is now 42, the IHA has made no bones about its expectation that they keep trying to have a son. After a 1999 miscarriage, the agency severely restricted Masako's travel schedule, hoping she could undergo more fertility treatments. In 2003, the previous Grand Steward, Toshio Yuasa, was blunt. "Frankly speaking," he said, "I want them to have another child." To this day, the public appears to want her to keep trying, too. When Naruhito and Masako recently took Aiko on their first-ever family vacation, the media and the public heaped scorn upon them for frivolously enjoying themselves while neglecting their official duties.
To a degree unimaginable elsewhere, the IHA controls its charges' lives. Unlike Britain's Prince Charles, who has his own interests and pursuits, including an enormously successful charity, Japan's royals have virtually no say over their calendars. "They don't get to choose where they go or what they do," says Yamashita. "They could never be allowed to favor one charity over another." Indeed, he maintains, it's important that the royal family does not have opinions: "They cannot say they like apples, because if they did, what would the orange growers say?" In significant ways, the Japanese royals, by design, still barely inhabit the earthly realm: they have no surname, no personal wealth or possessions, no passports and few, if any, legal rights. Can they divorce? Can they abdicate? Can they sue? Nobody really knows. Says Akira Asada of Kyoto University: "The royals aren't permitted to live like normal human beings. They are forced to live in a miserable situation, stripped of many basic human rights."