In Japan, imperial guardians wield power. Palace agency has tight control over lives and news of royal family

The most secretive agency in Japan is not its intelligence organization. It is the Imperial Household Agency. The agency, or kunaicho, is responsible for administering the affairs of Japan's imperial family, including the official duties and the ceremonies and rites performed by the Emperor.

Critics say the kunaicho has used its powers to draw an almost impenetrable ``chrysanthemum curtain'' around the imperial family. The agency tightly controls the flow of information about Japan's monarchy, not only to the public but to the rest of the government.

Complaints about the imperial guardians have surfaced recently during the month-long illness of Emperor Hirohito, who has occupied the ``Chrysanthemum Throne'' for 62 years. All information about the Emperor's condition has come from the agency, consisting of several reports a day of the monarch's vital signs.

For some Japanese, the attitude of the Imperial Household Agency is an uncomfortable remnant of the pre-World War II era, when the Emperor was kept totally apart from the people and was treated as a divine figure in accordance with ancient myths. The functioning of the imperial institution contradicts democracy, because ``it is not open,'' says critic Rev. Masahiro Tomura, an official of the United Church of Christ who follows church and state relations.

The agency has the primary responsibility for shaping the content of the Emperor's role. ``The agency is proud of its secretive system, which keeps the Emperor surrounded by a lot of taboos,'' says Mr. Tomura.

Agency officials, who said they were unavailable for interview, deny that they are holding back information from the public. Compared to the prewar period, recent years have seen a far more active Emperor, appearing regularly at public functions.

But life of the royal family still largely goes on in the distant surroundings of the Imperial Palace, to which the public has almost no access. Within the palace, the Emperor still performs rituals associated with the ancient beliefs of ancestor worship and Shintoism, Japan's native pantheistic religion.

``The principle of the agency is not to tell anything happening inside the imperial institution,'' comments veteran reporter Hiroshi Takahashi, who has written a book on the subject.

Mr. Takahashi compares the news being provided about the Emperor's condition to what was given 60 years ago. ``The information provided by the Imperial Household Agency is exactly the same that was offered when the emperor of the Taisho Era was dying [in 1926],'' says Mr. Takahashi, who reports for Kyodo News Service. ``The only improvement is that the official [who provides the information] appears in front of the reporters.''

Tension over this issue surfaced at one point a few weeks ago when Grand Steward Shoichi Fujimori, who heads the agency, rebuked reporters for publishing information leaked from Cabinet sources which contradicted the agency's account. ``Which information do you think is correct, ours or information given by sources close to the prime minister,'' the grand steward reportedly snapped.

But even the prime minister's office has complained about the trickle of information coming out of the kunaicho. The chief Cabinet secretary publicly requested the agency to open up more, but to little apparent effect. And, according to Cabinet sources, the government is unhappy with the reports it has been receiving directly from the agency. In fact, to date, no government official outside the Imperial Household Agency has even been allowed to see the Emperor, although he has been well enough to receive short visits.

The agency is a direct descendant of the prewar Imperial Household Ministry, a Cabinet-level organization. Under the postwar reforms, it was downgraded to an office attached the prime minister's office, with the grand steward appointed by the prime minister.

The agency has 1,130 employees, with an annual budget of about $90 million. The imperial family, unlike the British royal family, for example, has no source of income other than that annual budget. Most of it - $66 million in the last fiscal year - went to the administrative costs of the agency, which includes the upkeep of the imperial palaces and various official functions. The rest, about $24 million, went directly to the imperial family itself, including the Crown Prince and his immediate family.

Though there have been changes, the functioning of the inner core of the agency remains remarkably unaltered from prewar days. The agency is divided into two parts - the so-called omote, or ``front,'' and the oku, or ``back.'' The Grand Steward and his administrators are the ``front.'' The ``back'' consists of the 80-odd people who take care of the daily life of the Emperor and the Empress.

The head of the oku is the jijucho, or grand chamberlain, who is assisted by lesser chamberlains and ladies in waiting. ``They take care of the Emperor and Empress 24 hours a day,'' says Kiyoshi Kubo, who covered the agency for the leading daily Yomiuri Shimbun. The oku includes the maids and others who serve meals, change their clothes, and clean their rooms. It also includes the court physicians.

The Emperor would typically spend part of his day in his palace office dealing with his limited official duties, such as signing documents. ``If the Emperor has a question to ask while working,'' explains Mr. Kubo, ``these chamberlains will help him and, if necessary, contact the omote.''

During the Emperor's illness, Grand Chamberlain Satoru Yamamoto has controlled all access to him and the flow of information about his condition. Indeed, the grand steward himself did not see the Emperor until several weeks after he fell ill.

These officials carefully script the Emperor's public appearances, including his ceremonial meetings with visiting heads of state. By tradition, when the Emperor meets such a guest, the contents of the discussion are never disclosed. The grand chamberlain and the grand master of ceremonies attend such meetings and afterward brief the press.

According to Mr. Takahashi's book, these careful controls have caused a few incidents. When China's Deng Xiaoping visited Japan and met the Emperor for the first time, the Emperor started the meeting by apologizing for Japan's war against China. Japanese papers, Takahashi wrote, criticized the Emperor for his failure to apologize, only to find out later from Chinese reports that he had in fact done so.

The mystique surrounding the oku has been heightened by the fact that, until very recently, those filling its top positions have been from high-level aristocratic families. Until April, the grand chamberlain was Yoshihiro Tokugawa, a descendant of the Tokugawa family that ruled Japan as shoguns for 250 years. He first became a chamberlain in 1936, following in the footsteps of his father, who was a chamberlain to the Taisho Emperor. The chief lady in waiting to the Empress is his sister.

Still, observers like Kubo see signs of change. The new chief chamberlain and his assistants are professional bureaucrats, without such aristocratic backgrounds. And Crown Prince Akihito and his wife have been known to chafe against the tight controls on their lives favored by some agency officials.

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