TOKYO (Reuters) - A book on the sad saga of Crown Princess Masako by an Australian journalist has touched a nerve in Japan, where tabloids may tease but mainstream media tend to tread lightly when it comes to reporting about royals.
Publisher Kodansha Ltd said on Friday it had scrapped plans for a Japanese edition of “Princess Masako - Prisoner of the Chrysanthemum Throne”, prompting author Ben Hills -- who has described his book as “an Oriental Charles and Diana story” -- to complain that the Japanese government had censored his work.
Japan’s Foreign Ministry has sought an apology and “appropriate steps” from Hills regarding the book, which it said insulted the royal family and contained many factual errors.
“The Japanese public has the right to read the book and make up its own mind. It’s not the job of the Japanese government to suppress it,” Hills told Reuters in a telephone interview.
“This is censorship, pure and simple,” said Hills, adding he had since been approached by three other Japanese publishers.
Hills said the Japanese government was especially keen to keep a Japanese audience from reading that Masako’s only child, 5-year-old Princess Aiko, may have been conceived through in vitro fertilization and that Masako herself was suffering from severe depression, not a mild “adjustment disorder” as described by the Imperial Household Agency, which manages royal affairs.
Japanese tabloids often engage in detailed gossip about royals, especially Masako, a Harvard-educated former diplomat who married Crown Prince Naruhito in 1993 and who many hoped would help modernize the staid imperial family.
“The weeklies put out all sorts of information of dubious certainty mixed with stuff that down the road you find is true,” said Kenneth Ruoff, author of a book on the late Emperor Hirohito.
TOUCHING ON TABOO
Weekly magazines even speculated last year that divorce might be a option for Masako, who suffers from what the palace has called a mental disorder caused by the stress of coping with rigid royal life. She has been unable to perform most of her official duties for more than three years.
Ruoff said Hills’ book broke little fresh ground with regard to Masako’s well-reported saga, but agreed the talk of in vitro fertilization might have offended conservative palace officials.
“People feel that there are certain things, when it comes to the royals, that should be left alone,” Ruoff said.
“The weeklies in Japan do it anyway, but the more respected media don’t usually go down that road.”
Miiko Kodama, a professor of mass communications at Musashi University, echoed that view.
“There’s still a taboo about the imperial family, and the book touched on that,” she said, adding that many ordinary Japanese would see written references to how Aiko was conceived as an invasion of royal privacy.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Mitsuo Sakaba declined to detail what he said were “maybe more than 100 errors” in the book.
He said a letter to Hills and his publisher, Random House, Australia, had stated that the book “contains disrespectful discussions, distortions of fact and judgmental assertions ... pertaining to the birth of Princess Aiko and the physical condition of her Imperial Highness, Crown Princess Masako.”
Sakaba said Japan’s government was upset at the disrespectful tone of the work as well as its factual errors.
“Freedom of speech should respect certain norms and standards. If you can say anything you like, I don’t think that is freedom of speech, and the person who says that should respect others’ right to express their views,” he said, explaining why the Japanese government had decided to protest.
Masako, now 43, gave birth to Aiko in 2001 after eight years of marriage to Crown Prince Naruhito, who turns 47 on Friday.
Under Japan’s males-only imperial succession law, however, Aiko cannot ascend the throne. Plans to revise the law were shelved last year when Masako’s royal sister-in-law gave birth to the first imperial male heir in more than 40 years.
The fuss over Hills’ book has had one positive result for the author. The work is now the best-selling foreign-language book on Amazon’s Japanese Web site, Amazon.co.jp.
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