TOKYO -- Fact: the Japanese Imperial Household Agency has confirmed that Empress Michiko collapsed on the way to her birthday party last week and has since lost the ability to speak.
Conjecture -- Infinite.
The sudden speechlessness of a woman whose role in Japanese society forbids her from saying anything of substance has triggered a barrage of news media speculation.
Lack of information about the case, about what she would like to say in the unprecedented event she would be given the opportunity to say it, or even if anyone cares what she might say, hasn't stopped the indomitable Japanese press.
Empress stories are a now staple of television talk shows. The empress, says one elderly male opiner, needs a confidante or a close friend she can talk to.
Really what she needs, responds another, is a psychiatrist or a specialist.
And, of course, there is the inevitable suggestion that, given the stressful nature of being royal these days, she might just need a home that's not a castle.
Since Wednesday, television crews have made daily stops outside her official residence at the Akasaka Palace. Shortly before her collapse, she had released a note indicating dismay at the recent news media coverage she had been receiving in weekly magazines (spends too much, caused some sacred woods to be chopped down, is privately bossy, etc.).
In view of her subsequent malady, the criticism has been incessantly rehashed. So too, has an event that might have happened in the past. In 1963, the Empress, then only a princess, is said to have taken an extended vacation because of a nervous breakdown triggered by (version one) the brutal introduction into the Imperial Household she received as the first commoner to marry into it or (version two) by a severe chastising she received from her father-in-law, Emperor Hirohito, for the secret conversion of one of his sons to Roman Catholicism.
Of course maybe she just wanted a vacation. Or maybe she never went away. The story has never been confirmed and, indeed, a long-time Imperial Household correspondent says it was not even reported until years after it had supposedly taken place.
"The Imperial Household Agency never really gives any information," says a wire service reporter who has a jaded view of the beat. "But on the other hand, they never demand a retraction either."
Yesterday evening, a lone newsman was stationed outside the main entrance of the palace in search of the truth. Naoki Kodachi, a photographer with the huge publishing company, Kodansha, and its weekly magazine, Friday, was ready -- a large camera bag at his feet, a portable phone in his hand and a small step ladder in front.
Mr. Kodachi had been on the job since 1 p.m, taking his turn at a daylight vigil that began the moment the Empress's condition first became known last week.
Any comments from passersby on the tense situation? Just one, he said, from a cleaning women who passed several times. "You work hard," she said