When Shukan Shincho (May 23) says “cold war,” it doesn’t mean what first springs to mind – the ideological geopolitical half-century-long confrontation between democracy as represented by the United States and communism as represented by the Soviet Union. It means the increasingly frosty relationship between two royal women: Empress Masako and her sister-in-law Crown Princess Kiko.
Masako Owada seemed poised on the edge of a brilliant diplomatic career when, in 1986, she met Crown Prince Naruhito. Their courtship was long and complicated. They married in 1993. The quarter-century that followed was not kind to Crown Princess Masako. Ill health plagued her. Under pressure to produce an heir to the throne, she gave birth in 2001 to Princess Aiko – to the consternation of traditionalists for whom “heir” meant “male heir.” Masako withdrew further into the background, chronically “convalescing,” never quite convalesced.
Princess Kiko, on the other hand, wife of Naruhito’s younger brother Prince Fumihito, seemed to flourish, clinching her status in the royal family by giving birth in 2006 to Prince Hisahito.
May 1 – day one of Japan’s new Reiwa era – was day one as well of a new reign -- Emperor Naruhito and Empress Masako. And Empress Masako, reports Shukan Shincho, is blooming as Crown Princess Masako never did. Her symptoms cast off, her vigor restored, she sheds a new glow that threatens to put Kiko in the shade.
Ascension to the Chrysanthemum Throne is a highly ceremonialized, deeply ritualized affair. Masako was a full participant in all of it. A week later she was present at a dinner for the Chinese ambassador on the eve of his recall home. For 30 minutes, it was observed, she engaged the ambassadorial couple in lively conversation – a clear departure from the aloof manner of her crown princess days, and a preview, perhaps, of the role she’ll play at the G20 summit in Osaka in late June.
Crown Princess Kiko, meanwhile, is beset by anxieties, most notably those concerning the troubled marriage plans of her elder daughter, Princess Mako. The intense press scrutiny that compounds those anxieties has made it too well-known a story to require retelling here, beyond a reminder that it involves financial ambiguities in Mako’s fiancé’s family.
There are other issues too, including Crown Prince Fumihito’s allegedly precarious health. Fumihito is now, with his elder brother’s ascension, heir presumptive to the throne. An intensified public role has required a doubling of his and his wife’s personal staff. Not used to running such a large establishment, the royal couple must cope with the results of their inexperience – such as tensions arising from an inharmonious staff competing sometimes bitterly for status among themselves.
Veiled rivalry between Masako and Kiko is not new. Shukan Shincho cites an instance dating back to 2012. With Emperor Akihito was hospitalized for coronary bypass surgery, Kiko promptly announced plans to visit him. Masako, according to the magazine, reminded her that the rules of precedence entitled her to pay the first visit. Peacemaker in the affair was Empress Michiko – who said, in effect, "We’ll all go together."
If that sets the pattern for future relations between the two royal women, the “cold war” will be manageable.© Japan Today