Thursday, October 28, 2021

Book 307: Princess Masako


"Here is an ambitious, intelligent woman who cannot bear the stifling constraints of life as a royal puppet; a woman from a family with a tradition of public service denied a real role in life; a woman with a Harvard education, a master of languages, who is denied meaningful discourse, and urged to amuse herself with pursuits such as the dissection of catfish or the study of medieval barges."

Dates read: April 3-7, 2019

Rating: 4/10

One of my guilty pleasures is royal-watching. I spend more time than I should reading about/looking at pictures of the world's royal families, analyzing their fashion choices, gazing longingly at their jewelry collections. It's not that I covet their lives, though I do covet many of their wardrobes, and just putting a tiara on my head once would be one of the highlights of my life. I've read the comments on the royal Instagrams, I've seen how nasty people are about the women in these families. It's just fun to imagine being one of them for a day, and then back to normal.

Though the British royal family sucks up most of the oxygen when it comes to coverage of royalty, it's not the oldest one. Not by a long shot. The oldest is the Chrysanthemum Throne, the seat of the Japanese emperors. Naruhito currently occupies that role, with his wife Masako filling the role of Empress. But like the women married to the British princes, Masako Owada wasn't born into nobility. She grew up in Russia, Japan, and the United States as the daughter of a diplomat. She herself even worked as a diplomat. But once she accepted then-Prince Naruhito's marriage proposal, her entire world changed. Unfortunately, as Ben Hill's Princess Masako explores, it hasn't always been necessarily for the better.

Allegedly, Masako didn't accept the first time Naruhito asked her to marry him. Nor even the second. She was smart enough to know that a life as the consort of the Crown Prince would require her to give up everything she'd earned for herself and accept a tightly circumscribed and entirely domestic role. It seems Naruhito promised her that they'd find a way to loosen restrictions and modernize, but those promises weren't able to be kept. Cut off from her former life and under immense pressure to get pregnant, Masako seems to have become significantly depressed. When she finally did become a mother, she faced a fresh round of criticism for having given birth to a girl instead of a boy, as only men can inherit the throne. Prior to her elevation to Empress, Masako basically became a recluse, appearing in public very infrequently.

There's a lot of (fairly educated) guesswork here, because sources about what Masako really thinks/feels aren't exactly forthcoming. Japanese media culture does not reward the sort of tabloid speculation that sells papers in Europe, and perhaps that is why it seems like Hill's sources were not as strong as one might have hoped. The people he talks to about Masako, who knew her before she became a princess, are either pretty far removed from their last contact with her or never knew her very well in the first place. A behind-the-scenes kind of book like this should feel rooted in firm reality with sources just remaining anonymous to protect themselves, but pretty much everything that's supposed to be revealing in here feels like speculation.

There's no sense of fun, either, which is half the point of picking up this sort of book. On the one hand, it's hard to imagine how this story could be anything but tragic, but on the other hand, letting that sense of sadness pervade the book makes the gossip-y tone feel like rubbernecking at a car accident. I did learn more about the Imperial Household Agency, the courtiers that control the royal family, and got a bit more context on the relationship between the Japanese people and their royalty, and the way it's changed in the post-WW2 era. But as a whole, the book never took off and I didn't feel like I got much besides a straightforward account of the biographical details of Masako's life. If you're really into the Japanese royals, then you might find something worthwhile here, but don't count on it for dishy intrigue. Otherwise, there's no real reason to pick it up.

One year ago, I was reading: Looking for Alaska

Two years ago, I was reading: Patron Saints of Nothing

Three years ago, I was reading: Seduction

Four years ago, I was reading: The Book Thief

Five years ago, I was reading: The Confessions of St. Augustine

Six years ago, I was reading: Primitive Mythology

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