Prince's search for a wife too hot for Japanese press

FOREIGN CLOSEUP

September 03, 1992|By John E. Woodruff | John E. Woodruff,Tokyo Bureau

TOKYO -- While Britain's royal family suffers humiliating headlines about its troubled marriages, the world's most important other monarchy is in a crisis of the opposite sort, but nearly as embarrassing.

Crown Prince Naruhito can't find a wife.

It's also different here because there hasn't been a headline about the crisis of the Chrysanthemum Throne since February. The Japanese press has formally agreed to stop writing about it.

"It's not censorship," a major news organization's full-time royal-watcher says. "We agreed to it because we understood the situation."

The crisis arises because no males have been born beyond Naruhito's generation, and the law requires male heirs. Seven babies in 26 years all have been girls.

The crown prince's younger brother, Prince Akishino, married in 1990 and legally could extend the male line if his wife, Princess Kiko, has a boy. But their first baby was girl No. 7, Princess Mako. Anyway, nobody thinks a son for Akishino is as desirable as one for Naruhito.

Naruhito differs from millions of other young Japanese men only because his problem is magnified to wide-screen size by who he is.

Millions of young Japanese working women defer marriage, and growing numbers never marry. They savor newfound freedoms: overseas travel, night life, spending money.

Those are precisely the freedoms yearned for and exercised by the well-educated, foreign-language-speaking woman who might find favor among the chamberlains overseeing life in the palace.

What Naruhito has to offer a woman is life behind a wall and a moat, scripted 24 hours a day by the stuffiest of Japan's notoriously stodgy bureaucrats. Big achievements would be to get through ceremonies without making a mistake and, with luck, to produce the long-awaited male heir.

And, to cope with the press.

More than 500 reporters are accredited to the palace. About 30 or 40 are full time, but the number expands for a big story.

For example, a story about a new candidate being considered to become Naruhito's spouse.

How big that story might get was demonstrated two years ago when "Kikomania" swept Japan as Akishino married.

When there's a candidate, cameramen and reporters converge on the woman's home and camp outside awaiting a photo or a phrase.

Last summer, after press mobs scared off yet another potential bride for the imperial groom, the chamberlains reminded reporters that coverage had been suspended three decades ago when Emperor Akihito was crown prince and seeking a bride.

Might this be possible, they asked, in this age of a freer press?

"As our excuse, we said we would respect the candidates' privacy," the royal-watcher said. A member of one of Japan's more cloistered societies, the Imperial Household Agency Press Club, he agreed to talk to an American reporter only on condition that his name not be used.

"The real reason was that we concluded this wasn't exactly an investigative topic," he said. "We were wasting energy on specious scoops, and there would surely be an announcement if a princess really were found."

They also knew the experience only a year earlier of Toshiaki Nakayama, a news photographer.

Mr. Nakayama took a refreshingly unauthorized wedding-day photo of Kiko brushing Akishino's hair into place.

Editors loved it and put it on the front page. Chamberlains hated it and banished Mr. Nakayama from the palace for keeps.

In months of negotiations with editors and publishers last year, Shoji Fujimori, the grand chamberlain, asked that the press not only stop writing about candidates but stop shadowing their homes. In the pact completed in February, the Japan Newspaper Association agreed to stop writing but rejected any ban on fact-gathering.

So, candidates, real or rumored, find only somewhat smaller press armies on their doorsteps.

The palace press shows little sign of being upset to have the beat's potentially biggest story under wraps. One reason is the spectacle in London.

"We wouldn't get much professional satisfaction writing about the family's marital problems and making the marriage that much harder," the royal-watcher said. "British reporters certainly have more freedom, but I don't envy what they have to do in the name of freedom."

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