Japanese tabloids make hay of royal family foibles

The Japanese emperor is a quiet, studious type. The paragon of respectability. But, oh, what a family!

In a country where old folks still remember when it was a serious crime to defame the imperial household, Japan's tabloid-style weekly magazines just can't get enough unflattering gossip on its royal family — and especially the women who marry into it.

Emperor Akihito, 77, is portrayed as beyond reproach, but his wife, who had epic battles with her in-laws when she was young, is painted as, well, let's say sensitive. And their daughter-in-law, Crown Princess Masako? What a tragedy! Still no son.

Masako, the Harvard and Oxford educated wife of the heir to the throne, is a favorite target. Any piece of trivia will do.

"Lady in Waiting Quits: 'They Won't Let Me Do My Job,'" screamed one recent headline. Another took aim at Masako's 9-year-old daughter: "Aiko Holed Up In Limo — Refuses To Go To School." The story, accompanied by blurry photos, acknowledged the young princess stayed in the limousine only about 15 minutes.

As Britain gears up for its royal wedding in April, Japan — taking a page from the British tabloids — is firmly in soap-opera mode.

The constant and often ungenerous scrutiny has taken a toll. It has been linked to serious bouts of depression in Masako, 47, and Empress Michiko, 76, the two who get the most attention.

Those in the business say they are simply giving readers — predominantly women — what they want. They argue that the public has a right to know the royal family better than the largely uncritical, one-dimensional picture in the mainstream media.

"There are times when, to be honest, I feel sorry for the royal family," said Shu Hatakehori, who is in charge of imperial coverage for the Shukan Josei, a weekly magazine with a circulation of about 700,000. "But we are responding to the needs of our readers."

The change in tone is striking considering the strictly enforced reverence of the palace until the end of World War II in 1945. Even in the ensuing decades, coverage of then Emperor Hirohito remained restrained.

His death in 1989, and the aggressive coverage of Princess Diana by the British tabloids, contributed greatly to the change in Japan's media style.

"There is a world of difference between the monarchy of the 1940s, which was above the clouds, sacrosanct," said Kenneth Ruoff, a history professor at Portland State University and the author of two books on the Japanese monarchy. "It's a fairly recent development that the weeklies have taken this no-holds-barred attitude."

Actually, it's not quite no holds barred.

Rarely are the men — and especially the emperor — portrayed in as harsh a light as the women who marry them, though indirect and usually carefully couched criticisms pop up every now and then.

"There is still a taboo against criticizing the emperor himself," said Bunichi Terada, the Shukan Josei's deputy editor. "But frankly, that's not our role. We are for the masses. They don't want a lot of intellectualizing."

Terada believes there is a tremendous pool of respect among Japanese for the royal family, but there is also an appetite for stories on their struggles with the kinds of issues faced by Japanese women today: the difficulties of a demanding career, of raising a family, of critical in-laws.

"People want something they can relate to," he said.

The palace maintains a frequently updated section on its website challenging the veracity of the weeklies' reports.

After Empress Michiko had a breakdown in the early 1990s that left her unable to speak for months, she said she had been deeply hurt by reports that she was petty with her subordinates and high-strung.

The reporting largely died down until Masako took center stage about seven years ago, when her problems adjusting to palace life became public. Since then, the spotlight on the royal family has been relentless, Terada said.

Michiko made headlines again in 2007 when she was sidelined by intestinal bleeding her doctors attributed to stress. In a news conference that year, she acknowledged wondering what it would be like to have a "cloak of invisibility."

Masako, who gave up a diplomatic career to marry Crown Prince Naruhito in 1993, had a miscarriage in 1999 and withdrew from nearly all of her palace duties after giving birth to Aiko in 2001 because of a chronic depressive disorder.

Most palace watchers agree that stemmed in large part from intense media coverage of her failure to bear a son to carry on the imperial line.

The succession crisis became a heated issue in parliament, with some arguing that Japan should drop a law allowing only males to assume the throne. The debate died down after Masako's sister-in- law, Princess Kiko, gave birth to Prince Hisahito in 2006, effectively ending Aiko's chances of becoming a reigning empress.