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Japanese dare to ask: Do we really need an emperor?

This week, the Imperial Household Agency curtailed the emperor's activities amid rising evidence of stress in the royal household.

By Rena SingerContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / January 30, 2009

Japan's imperial family members, seen here posing for an official photo in December, are struggling with their tightly constrained lives, and Emperor Akihito has voiced concern for the family's future.

Imperial Household Agency/AP



Japan's imperial family is confronting a sharp crisis of confidence as it searches for a meaningful role in modern Japanese society.

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While still revered, the imperial family – whose head was considered divine until 1945 – is increasingly pitied as its members struggle with their tightly constrained lives. And with Emperor Akihito's reign in its twilight, many Japanese are daring to ask what has been unspeakable for centuries: Does the country really need an emperor?

Japan's royals are expected to work tirelessly, acting as a unifying force and fostering hope during difficult times. But so great has the stress on the family become that the Imperial Household Agency (IHA) announced Thursday that it will reduce the ailing emperor's official meetings with dignitaries, have him attend far fewer religious rituals, and end his role giving speeches at national athletic events.

The decision is just the latest in a string of setbacks for the world's oldest ruling imperial line. According to his doctors, Emperor Akihito, who has been increasingly vocal about his concerns about the family's future, is suffering from "mental agony." His wife, Empress Michiko, has long struggled with her position in the family, with consequences for her health. Rumors of a breakdown have swirled around Crown Prince Naruhito's wife, the Harvard-educated Princess Masako, who, before her marriage, captivated the nation with her vivacity and rising stature as a young diplomat.

"They are the picture of unhappiness," says Herbert Bix, professor of history at Binghamton University in New York and author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book "Hirohito and The Making of Modern Japan." "They seem to have been denied human rights," he adds. "You can understand their angst."

Much of the trouble can be traced to the difficulty of establishing a modern role for an imperial line so old that its origins are a matter of scholarly debate. The 1947 Constitution imposed by US occupying forces stripped the family of its divinity and made the institution more symbolic, while at the same time incorporating it into the office of the prime minister.

They became, in effect, permanent wards of the state.

The royals have no private money, no private phones, and essentially no private lives. Even relationships within the family are managed by the 1,200-person IHA, which has not been diffident in sharing its views.

"The values of the imperial family are not part of the equation," says Jeffrey Kingston, director of Asian Studies for Temple University's Japan campus.

The head of the IHA once publicly chided the crown prince for not visiting his parents more frequently. And last year, the IHA – which did not answer questions submitted to them for this story – announced that the emperor and empress were "deeply hurt" by a remark the crown prince had made.