When the Paparazzi Threaten a Dynasty

Japan calls for press restraint as the crown prince searches for a bride - a letter from Tokyo

DEAR Editor,

Your wise counsel is requested in a most difficult dilemma for this reporter.

The Japanese news media have officially asked foreign journalists in Tokyo to censor themselves by not reporting about the women who date the bachelor crown prince. What to do?

It's easy to sympathize. Crown Prince Naruhito, who just turned 32, has failed to tie the knot and produce a male heir. A media spotlight has disrupted his search for a consort. The 1,600-year-old monarchy, a symbol of Japanese unity, might die out. Even Gen. Douglas MacArthur, during the postwar American occupation, didn't want that to happen.

Sympathy also goes out to the young women who have already dated the crown prince. They were harried mercilessly by Japanese journalists who now find it in their hearts to back off. What would-be empress wants her face on magazine covers and subway posters, her history exposed, her love life probed?

A few years ago, the crown prince did take an interest in Brooke Shields and sought her out on her trips to Tokyo. If he does see her again, should this newspaper stifle itself?

Fortunately, Ms. Shields is already a media star and considered fair game by the Japanese press. And she's not a serious candidate: No foreigner would ever be allowed on the throne, even though Japan has patterned its modern imperial system on the European monarchies, at least in form.

She has another shortcoming: She's too tall.

The prince's retainers are not sure of his height. "We have not measured him recently," an Imperial Household Agency official says. "We suggest that you guess [his height] from looking at him. But, um, I would say he is about 165 centimeters [5 feet, 4 inches]."

Any candidate for this royal union, it is said, must pass three tests: a proper subordinate height, an ability to speak English, and no previous boyfriends. These conditions have narrowed the field considerably.

Five years ago, Naruhito said he wanted to be married by the age of 30. Already two years behind schedule, he has reached the age when Prince Charles found his Lady Diana.

"I think it is extremely important to have a calm atmosphere so that progress can be made on resolving the problem" of finding a bride, he told Japanese reporters in a press conference last month. He thanked the reporters for their censorship during his courtship.

Officials of the Imperial Household Agency, who protect the emperor and his family, obviously do not want the prince's nuptial options blown away. The agency was able to arrange for the Japan Newspaper Publishers and Editors Association to "voluntarily" accept its request for a self-imposed gag rule, known in Japan as the "chrysanthemum curtain," named after the imperial flower. Some things are above press freedom in Japan.

Last year, the agency flexed its royal muscles to protect Naruhito. The weekly magazine Bunshun suggested that he try a new hair style - and even ran 10 doctored photos of him sporting alternative coiffures. The agency gave the magazine a warning. No Japanese publication can afford to have its access to the agency cut off.

The stern dominion of the imperial retainers might give pause to a prospective empress.

"I think anyone would have [second] thoughts," Naruhito said. "The palace is a difficult place to enter because in some ways it is still backward."

What would Japanese journalists do if the crown prince does not date anyone at all? Such a threat to the imperial lineage might go unreported. Whither, then, Japan?

Fortunately, sources have informed the Monitor of one woman who has recently dated the crown prince.

But enough said. To print or not to print? Await your instructions. Your Hamlet in Tokyo,

-Clayton Jones

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