Japan's imperial family is confronting a sharp crisis of confidence as it searches for a meaningful role in modern Japanese society.
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 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.
Another IHA official famously announced after the birth of the crown prince's only child, a daughter: "Frankly speaking, I want them to have another child."
As easy as it is to paint this as a battle between good and evil, modernists and traditionalists, the imperial family versus the IHA, the story is more complex, says Shinji Yamashita, an IHA employee for 23 years and now publisher of a quarterly magazine about the royals.
First, says Mr. Yamashita, many IHA employees have worked in other divisions of the government for years. They are not, he says, a uniformly traditional bunch.
Yamashita says the real battle is within each organization, not between them. "Both the IHA and the imperial family are trapped between the constitutional role of the imperial family and the sentiments of the people," he says.
Yet many Japanese, says Yamashita, want the emperor to continue the long tradition of leading Shinto rituals, encouraging age-old cultural practices, and inspiring the nation. But all the emperor's statements have to be approved by the prime minister's office. Not surprisingly, most of what he says is bland.
Before he assumed the throne, then-Crown Prince Akihito complained that being emperor meant becoming a robot. He pledged to transform the Chrysanthemum throne.
By some measures, he has succeeded. He was the first royal to marry a commoner, and he allowed the empress to raise their children herself instead of packing them off to nursemaids.
His schedule includes stops at facilities for the elderly and he often spoke of issues related to the graying of Japan, a pet topic.
When earthquakes hit Japan, he and the empress visit victims. The couple once touched their countrymen's hearts by getting down on the ground to bow to those made homeless by a disaster. The emperor has tried to make amends with Japan's neighbors during his visits in Asia by speaking openly of the suffering inflicted by Japanese troops during World War II. He has also tried to heal wounds within the country, visiting every prefecture in the nation during his reign.
But his day-to-day schedule is hardly the stuff of headlines – signing documents, accrediting senior officials, welcoming foreign ambassadors, and the like.
Now, Japanese are looking to his eldest son for further change.
The Oxford University-educated prince has indicated he would like to transform the institution. He has moved in that direction, first by marrying a career woman and more recently by complaining that his wife, Princess Masako, had no meaningful work.
The majority of Japanese, according to most polls, support changing the Constitution to allow Naruhito and Masako's daughter to ascend the throne – a view that was gaining momentum until Naruhito's brother and his wife had a son in 2006.
Support is still broad for the royal family, says Yamashita. "Old people, in particular, would feel a sense of loss if the institution was abolished," he says. "But in 30 years' time, maybe people wouldn't feel that way."
Tokyo resident Shizuka Coats remembers going with her grandfather to the Imperial Palace every year on the emperor's birthday to be among the throng of well-wishers waving Japanese flags and hoping for a glimpse of the emperor. She hasn't been since her grandfather passed away. Neither does she plan to start the same ritual with her children.
"I feel very distant from the royal family," says Ms. Coates. "I think the crown prince must change things to make the family more relevant."