An Imperial Monster-In-Law

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When, in November of 1958, Japan’s Imperial Household Agency announced the betrothal of Crown Prince Akihito to a wealthy, glamorous, cosmopolitan and well educated commoner named Michiko Shoda, marking the first time in the Yamato Dynasty’s over 2,600 year history that a young lady who was born neither a princess nor an aristocrat wasn’t just marrying into the imperial house, but was slated one day to become the most elevated among its daughters of heaven, Time magazine reported certain right wing extremists were so offended by the future prospect of paying obeisance to a “commoner empress” that they threatened to assassinate Miss Shoda and her entire family. While it’s unknown what Michiko’s future mother-in-law, the deceptively charming Empress Nagako, might’ve thought concerning her son’s fiancé and the rest of the Shoda clan possibly getting sliced and diced by a group of fanatical wanna be samurais, her subsequent behavior toward Michiko indicates she probably wouldn’t have lost much sleep over the massacre, let alone grieved. For while the Japanese public were thrilled over what their press deemed a tennis court romance, owing to the couple having met the previous summer when Miss Shoda defeated the Crown Prince in a doubles tennis match held at his vacation estate in Karuizawa, as well as the prospect of a foreign educated, university degree holding, multiple language speaking daughter of self made multi-millionaires breaking with tradition and breathing new life into the ossified imperial court, most of the imperial family as well as the Kazoku, the formerly titled aristocracy, many members of the Imperial Household Agency, and especially the vindictive Empress Nagako, born a princess into a minor branch of the House of Yamato, were enraged that Akihito had thrown over their list of approved potential brides from the highest of the high born in order to wed a curly haired “girl from outside,” as quoted in the March 23, 1959 Time article of the same name.

The Empress, with the help of her equally bitchy and elitist ladies-in-waiting, would devote the next thirty years to punishing Michiko for the crime of, in their opinion, not being good enough for Nagako’s older son. Their methods of unrelenting psychological torture would in time lead to the crown princess suffering several nervous breakdowns, resulting in Michiko loosing her voice for months at a time on two occasions, at least one bout of intestinal bleeding, and an abortion. Empress Michiko’s face has through the years told its own story. The once attractive debutante of the late ’50s heralding from a country renown for the longterm youthful appearance of its fair sex, has over the course of several decades rapidly withered into a frail, wrinkled shadow of her former self who, just ten years into her marriage, was already looking as if she’d aged before her time. Perhaps Princess Takako, the youngest of her sisters-in-law, summed up Michiko’s fate at the time of her engagement best when she stated, according to the May 16, 2007 Times article, Sad Tormented Life Of The Empress Who Dreams Of An Invisibility Cloak, “If Miss Michiko thinks that just because she’s got a commoner’s background she can reform the imperial household, she is very mistaken.” Time has proven Her Imperial Highness’s sentiments to be tragically prophetic.

Before one further dissects the plight of the Chrysanthemum Throne’s latest long suffering empress consort at the hands of her not so dearly departed mater-in-law, a brief explanation should be given to the uninitiated reader concerning the curious history of, and atmosphere surrounding, the Japanese Imperial Family. For if they give the impression of behaving in public or at court ceremonies like overly solemn marionettes in a bunraku, traditional Japanese puppet, theatre performance, whose movements are being manipulated through seemingly invisible strings by equally invisible masters backstage, that’s precisely because they are. Their specific puppet master is the collective Imperial Household Agency, i.e. the governmental body in charge of the Yamato dynasty’s administration and day to day affairs. While these courtiers outwardly treat the imperial family as if they’re semi-divine beings, which prior to 1945 they legally were, Emperor Akihito and his relatives are in reality prisoners of their own retainers. As of 2007, according to the Times article cited earlier, Empress Michiko wasn’t allowed her own private cellphone, nor could she leave the Tokyo palace compound without giving the IHA a minimum of two weeks notice beforehand. The tale of how their gilded cage like existence came into being is a centuries old story of a ruling family publicly revered as living gods, all the while being the powerless underlings of the warlords and political leaders exploiting the emperor’s divinity from behind palace walls.

Originating from the first emperor, Jimmu, who established his empire in the Yamato region of the main island of Honshu in 606 BCE, hence his paternal line descendants being referred to as the “House of Yamato” though in reality they don’t possess a last name, and according to Shinto doctrine, which until 1945 was the state religion of Japan, was the grandson of the sun goddess, Amaterasu, the emperors theocratically ruled until the 11th century, when the rise of the Shoguns took all real power out of their hands and they were kept as virtual prisoners at their traditional palace in Kyoto. While technically still considered living gods, with their divinity being used by the Shogunate to shield and justify its all too secular political machinations and infighting, the emperors fell into obscurity for the next 8 hundred years. By the time the Tokugawas, the last of the Shogun dynasties, were overthrown by a consortium of aristocratic families and their respective clans, a sizable portion of the populace had forgotten the emperors still existed.

It was in the year 1868 that the House of Yamato was brought out of its centuries old eclipse in Kyoto and moved to the former shogun’s palace in Tokyo, officially making it the new capital, thus reintroducing the emperor to his people and launching Japan into the modern age. Called “The ‘Meiji’ Restoration,” Meiji being the reign name posthumously bestowed upon the particular son of heaven whose ass just so happened to be sitting atop the Chrysanthemum Throne at the time, the emperor’s technically ancient divinity was revived, rebranded and presented to the people in a far more spectacularly theatrical manner than ever before. Many of the seemingly ancient ceremonies and rituals now engaged in by the imperial family are in reality rooted in the late 19th century. As Japan quickly and aggressively modernized itself, and fell further into the hands of militarists determined to forge an empire encompassing the whole of Asia, the emperor’s god like status was taken advantage of more and more in order to justify the power elite’s drift into fascism.

It was in this elegantly disingenuous atmosphere in which ancient mysticism disguised modern, all too earthly political maneuvering that Princess Nagako was born to one of the cadet branches of the imperial family in 1903. At 14 she became the intended bride of the then crown prince, Hirohito, in a hastily arranged betrothal orchestrated in secret by Emperor Taisho and Empress Sadako while the prime minister, Aritomo Yamagata, who was opposed to the match and a bitter enemy of the imperial couple, was away from Tokyo. According to Sterling and Peggy Seagrave in their book, The Yamato Dynasty, The Secret History Of Japan’s Imperial Family, the new crown princess was a sweet tempered, vivacious young woman when she first married whose joie de vivre was slowly crushed by her retinue of ladies-in-waiting. From being accused of spoiling her newborn children by visiting them regularly in the nursery, when protocol dictated the emperor and empress spend as little time as possible with their offspring prior to the tykes being removed completely from the palace at age three and raised by courtiers in the countryside; to being urged, after the rapid fire births of four daughters, one of whom died in infancy, to step aside and allow her husband to father a male heir with one of his 39 concubines, that Hirohito eventually removed from the palace corps, before finally birthing Crown Prince Akihito in 1933; to the harrowing experiences of World War ll, Japan’s defeat at the end of it, and Emperor Hirohito’s constitutional renunciation of his divinity; by the time the ’50s rolled around Empress Nagako had privately morphed into a cold blooded, soulless carbon copy of the dragon ladies surrounding her, just waiting to sink her exquisitely sharpened nails into the back of whomever displeased her. Such a victim would materialize at the end of the decade in the form of her oldest son’s new wife.

Michiko Shoda was born in Tokyo in 1934 to a modern, sophisticated, intellectual and über wealthy family utterly removed from the imperial court. Her father was Hidesaburo Shoda, president and later chairman of the Nisshin Flour Milling Company, whose annual sales by 1955 topped $93 million, making it the most successful company within its industry in Asia at that time. Her paternal uncle, Kenjiro Shoda, was a respected mathematician who in 1954 became president of Osaka University. Noted from childhood for her unusually curly hair, which she has since admitted led to her being nicknamed Temple-chan, a Japanese reference to Shirley Temple, she was educated almost exclusively at catholic girls’ schools, culminating in her graduating summa cum laude with a B.A. in English Literature from Tokyo’s University of the Sacred Heart in 1957. She also studied briefly at both Oxford and Harvard universities after obtaining her bachelors degree. Her convent education would later inspire accusations of Michiko harboring Christian sympathies both during her betrothal and later. While her private beliefs are unknown, it’s a matter of public record that she’s never been formally baptized.

At the time Miss Shoda was completing her education, the Imperial Household Agency was actively seeking a bride for Crown Prince Akihito, who by then was in his early twenties. According to the Seagraves, all of the leading finishing schools and women’s colleges in Tokyo, particularly Gakushuin University, formerly known as the Peeresses School and the alma mater of both Empress Nagako and her mother-in-law, Empress Sadako, submitted lists of eligible young aristocratic ladies. It was initially rumored Akihito’s distant cousin, the immaculately pedigreed Princess Kitashirakawa Hatsuko, was the favored candidate. Then the crown prince was introduced by one of his five court chamberlains to Michiko Shoda on the tennis court of his vacation estate at Karuizawa, which happened to be where Michiko’s family summer retreat was also located, and by 1958 the playing field for potential brides was extended to recent graduates of the Sacred Heart Convent, previously considered a training ground reserved solely for future brides of diplomats and captains of industry, and, not surprisingly, Michiko Shoda topped that list.

It would appear Akihito’s tennis court defeat by Miss Shoda ignited his passion far more than the presumably rigidly conditioned Princess Hatsuko ever could have; he began ardently courting Michiko from that time onward; and by the next year was determined to marry her despite palace objections. Shortly after his mother’s death in 2000, CBS News reported in their website article, Japan’s Dowager Empress Dead At 97, that Empress Nagako was by far the most vehemently opposed to the prospective match. It’s unknown whether or not Akihito blackmailed his parents and their court by privately threatening to renounce his succession rights if denied his choice of bride, but given his recent, unprecedented and televised plea to the Japanese people and government to allow him to abdicate, which is currently not allowed under their 1945 constitution, one wouldn’t be surprised if he did.

However Crown Prince Akihito overcame opposition to his prospective spouse, he overcame such obstacles nonetheless, and the Imperial Household Agency duly announced their engagement in April of 1959. In order to pacify hard line conservatives, the director of the IHA gave testimony to the Japanese Diet, parliament, stating the betrothal, contrary to press reports, was arranged, which was only true in the sense that any young lady who privately socialized with the heir to the throne had to be prescreened to some extant. This logic was a stretch, but it sounded good to the hardliners, death threats to the bride to be and her family not withstanding.

Crown Princess Michiko’s new monster-in-law initiated her seemingly endless barrage of complaints about the future empress consort on Michiko’s 10 April, 1959 wedding day when she voiced disapproval that the bridal couples’ carriage was drawn by 6 white horses, as opposed to the paltry four which had drawn Empress Nagako’s coach on the day of her husband’s enthronement. The part traditional, part westernized ceremony, the first of its kind to be partially televised to the Japanese public, was watched by over 15 million viewers. 500,000 well wishers lined the 8.8km procession route the crown prince and princess made after the ceremony. All was going well until a 19 year old, self proclaimed anti-royalist broke through security cordons. As captured on the Pathe news film covering the event, he then ran up to the open carriage, threw a rock at the groom, jumped onto the side of the landau, and grabbed the bride in an attempt to hurl her out of it before finally being bum rushed by a phalanx of police officers and wrestled to the ground. The procession proceeded with a nonplussed Akihito and Michiko continuing to smile and wave to the crowd as if nothing had happened. In retrospect, this incident can be seen as an omen of things to come for the new crown princess.

Nagako wasted no time in making her new daughter-in-law’s life a living hell by overseeing the appointment of the 24 year old crown princess’s three ladies-in-waiting: the 60 year old daughter of a former baron, and two slightly younger courtiers, one of which was well known within the palace for being the empress’s personal spy. No matter how many times Michiko attempted to have this troublesome wench removed from the Togu Palace, the official residence of the heir to the Chrysanthemum Throne, Empress Nagako simply wouldn’t allow it. There’s no doubt that many of the personal habits of the crown princess the empress was so fond of criticizing, and would later be spread via whispering campaigns throughout the imperial court and eventually the press, emanated from this implacable source.

Shortly after their honeymoon Akihito and Michiko settled into their new palace, despite its inhospitable atmosphere, and got down to the business of producing a male heir, which they duly accomplished when she gave birth to Prince Naruhito on 23 February, 1960. The crown prince had promised his fiancé he wouldn’t allow their children to be removed from them and raised by courtiers, which had been imperial family tradition for centuries. He was as good as his promise, and Naruhito as well as his subsequent little brother, Prince Akishino, born 1965, and little sister, Sayako Kuroda, formerly the Princess Nori, born 1969, were all raised by their parents. Empress Nagako was powerless to stop that, but perhaps owing to her jealousy of Michiko for achieving with one birth a feat it took Nagako five to accomplish, i.e. the delivery of a healthy presumed future emperor, or because of resentment owing to Michiko fighting the palace and succeeding in her battle to keep her children, whereas the old empress capitulated to pressure after being scrutinized for visiting her newborns in their nursery too often and raised no objection to them being removed from her altogether once they turned three, she joined in with her female retinue spreading the rumor that Michiko was a closeted, devout Christian whose sole reason for wanting to personally raise her newborn son was so she could teach him bible lessons. The irony of this rumor, according to The Yamato Dynasty, is that a secretive network of American Quakers had surrounded the imperial family since the turn of the century, and had played no small role in saving the Chrysanthemum Throne from oblivion following the Second World War, let alone saving Emperor Hirohito from being overthrown, tried for war crimes, and likely executed.

Direct, honest and forthright by nature, Crown Princess Michiko soon became so exasperated by her monster-in-law’s machinations that she asked at least one of her court chamberlains why the empress didn’t like her. This expression of candor was also used against Michiko by the imperial dragon ladies as it demonstrated, in their opinion, that the crown princess lacked the grace necessary to be a future empress who must always keep her thoughts to herself. By 1963 Michiko was pregnant again. Unfortunately, the constant stress she was under by then proved overwhelming. She collapsed from a nervous breakdown during the third month of her pregnancy. While in the hospital doctors decided she couldn’t carry the child to term and the crown princess underwent an abortion. She was also rendered speechless by her emotional collapse and was unable to talk for seven months. While she managed to fully recover from this ordeal, photos of her from that period onward demonstrate a woman aging rapidly before her time. No doubt this has been caused entirely by the psychological pain she’s endured since marrying, much of it at the hands of the late Empress Nagako, whose reign name has been Kojun since her death. Through it all Michiko has maintained her grace and elegance, which led to her being inducted into the Best Dressed Hall of Fame in 1990, and was yet another sticking point for her mother and sisters-in-law throughout her marriage, as she’s always been, even in the worst of times, far more glamorous than any of them.

The crown princess needed all her psychological strength to endure Empress Nagako’s most brazen public snubbing of daughter-in-law, which took place on national television in 1971. As Emperor Hirohito and his smiling consort were about to board their plane for a world tour, they passed through a line of VIP well wishers. When the empress got to the crown princess, she completely ignored her and pretended as if she wasn’t even there, looking past Michiko and immediately greeting Akihito, who was standing next to his wife. To paraphrase the Seagraves when they described this incident in Yamato Dynasty, Empress Nagako’s show of blatant disrespect toward Crown Princess Michiko, in a country where public manners are taken as seriously as they are in Japan, was the social equivalent of the old bag lifting up her dress and urinating all over her daughter-in-law’s legs and feet. Through it all, though powerless to stop his mother’s most devastating insults toward his wife, he nonetheless stood by her, defended his spouse against his mater’s onslaughts as much as he could, and never failed to show public support for Michiko whenever possible. His habit of holding his wife’s hand during their public engagements was a loving gesture noticed by the public, press, imperial household, and especially noted and appreciated by Michiko herself. This loving support undoubtedly got the crown princess through the worst of her ordeals. During their tenure as emperor and empress-in-waiting, they visited every prefecture in Japan in addition to conducting state visits to 37 countries, endearing themselves to the press and world public through demonstrations of simple humility, such as touching well wishers or kneeling down on their knees so they could be eye level with children, the elderly and the infirm. Unlike her future daughter-in-law and despite her travails, no one could’ve accused Michiko of laziness. Since the author’s on the subject of Japan’s current tragic crown princess, Masako, it should be noted that the press reports of, and public slights endured by then Crown Princess Michiko are among the reasons why it took so long for her to agree to marry Crown Prince Naruhito. The pain and public humiliation she’s endured during her marriage, and what kind of empress consort it’s feared she’ll become once Emperor Akihito’s allowed to abdicate, should he be allowed to do so, shall be the subject of a forthcoming post.

By contrast, Michiko’s relationship with Emperor Hirohito was, by her own account, an emotionally generous, warm and loving one. She’s even described him as a type of mentor. He may not have been able to protect her against his wife, but at least he was kind toward Michiko personally. His death in 1990, and all the changes it wrought, might’ve been a contributing factor to her nervous breakdown in 1993, which once again rendered her speechless for several months. Another contributing factor might also have been the fact that Empress Nagako, though frail and retired from public duties, was still alive. Considered too sickly to attend her husband’s funeral, Nagako spent the last 17 years of her life drifting into a blissful state of senile dementia which, by 1999, was rumored to be full blown Alzheimer’s. It’s additionally rumored that by the time of her death in 2000 she’d forgotten the Second World War had taken place, or that her husband had long died. It’s known for a fact that both Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko were by her bedside at the time of her passing. Whether or not the empress dowager recognized the frail, elegant woman next to her son, given everything else she might’ve forgotten, is unknown. What’s undoubtedly known is that Empress Michiko knew exactly who the old woman that was dying before her eyes was. Had she come to forgive her greatest enemy one last time, or had a certain evil streak developed in Michiko’s character, and she’d come to relish witnessing the last breaths of the one human being she hated most? As is the case with so much else concerning the inner goings on of the Japanese imperial family, one can only speculate.

Emperor Akihito’s recent televised speech expressing, without explicitly stating so, his desire to abdicate, which marks only the third time in Japanese history an emperor’s speech has been broadcast to the people, is the latest in a long line of public gestures he’s utilized to inspire political change. While some have argued he’s done this precisely because he’s unable to affect policy behind the scenes, where it really counts, no one can deny the emperor and his consort have done their utmost to endear themselves to the Japanese people and keep the Chrysanthemum Throne relevant in an ever changing society. Given the extreme emotional turmoil they’ve both endured throughout their marriage, this is no small accomplishment. Should his request be honored by the current government, which requires a rewriting of the 1945, American overseen constitution that doesn’t allow for an abdication, one can only hope Akihito, and especially the empress, may find genuine peace and happiness in their old age. Empress Michiko has certainly earned it!!!!!!!!