Whether Japan's Crown Princess Masako is pregnant, no one seems able to say. But one thing is for certain: This country's media went into overdrive covering her condition.
Newspapers published extras. Camera crews used helicopters to follow the princess's limousine. Endless hours of banter, reminiscence, and speculation filled the airwaves.
But as often happens when a big story breaks, the distance between fascination and filled-to-capacity proved to be short. As Americans did over O.J. Simpson and Monica Lewinsky, and as nearly the entire media-literate world did over the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, many Japanese quickly cried "enough."
"The coverage went too far," says Naoki Monna, a sociologist at Rikkyo University in Tokyo. Given the absence of a medical confirmation of Masako's pregnancy, he says the wall-to-wall media scrutiny amounted to "an invasion of privacy."
In most countries, reining in the media is a contentious topic. Handwringing about excessive coverage, low standards, and public figures' loss of privacy generally yields little action. That is mainly because of the argument that the only thing worse than a free press, however sloppy, is a tidy one regulated by the government.
But in Japan, media organizations heed officialdom. On the night of Dec. 13, the Imperial Household Agency reported the inconclusive results of medical tests of the crown princess and - at greater length - its displeasure at the coverage, which it termed "overheated" and "extremely regrettable."
"From now on," the statement continued, "we strongly demand that the news should be reported moderately while thoroughly respecting the human rights of the crown prince and princess, including their privacy."
The following day, the coverage dwindled to a trickle. Media organizations weren't apologetic, but neither were they chasing the story with the same vigor.
The government may not be satisfied. The media "completely ignored the basic rights of the princess," says Akitaka Saiki, a spokesman for Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi. "We have to control the flow of information in a more discreet manner," he adds, citing a system in which news organizations refrain from reports about kidnapping cases in order to give the police time to work.
Relations between the media and the government here are much cozier than in the rest of the industrialized world. Reporters assigned to a particular beat frequently organize into clubs that work en masse, an arrangement that tends to limit aggressive or adversarial reporting.
The result is an often compliant and uniform mainstream media. Some publications do forsake the club system, but they are often dismissed as disreputable tabloids.
In this case, a major mainstream newspaper, the Asahi Shimbun, broke from the pack on Dec. 10 to report Masako's "symptoms of pregnancy." An Asahi spokesman says the paper's motive was to provide "bright news to our readers when our world is dark."
Sounding more like a repentant imperial subject than a dispassionate observer, he continues: "We have to wait for the official announcement of the results of additional examinations of Crown princess Masako. We pray from our hearts that the tests will find that she is pregnant and for the birth of a healthy child."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society