Prince Hisahito, 6: The future of Japan’s monarchy

As an expectant Britain gets royal baby fever and readies to welcome a future monarch — male or female — the young boy who carries the destiny of Japan’s ancient imperial family lives a life much less examined.
Six-year-old Prince Hisahito is the only boy in four decades born into the world’s oldest monarchy, and will be entrusted with keeping alive an old genealogical line.
Unlike the House of Windsor, which lives life in the full tabloid glare and whose members provide endless fodder for gossip and speculation, the details of the lives of Japan’s imperial family are scarcely discussed.
Commentators say the young prince leads a happy life, but one in which he is already being prepared for his future role as emperor at the head of a staid and revered institution, far removed from the common folk.
“I don’t think Prince Hisahito plays computer games” like other boys his age, said Shinji Yamashita, a former official of the Imperial Household Agency and now a journalist specializing in royal matters.
“But he seems to be leading an unconstrained childhood,” said Yamashita.
Japan’s emperor is the nominal head of state.
Although wealthy, the lives of the royal family inside ornate and spacious Tokyo palaces are heavily restricted and full of rituals, many of which are only hazily understood outside a tight inner circle of advisers.
Absent are the careless exploits of Prince Harry, the charming common touch of Prince William, or the crusading environmentalism of Prince Charles.
Theirs is a life of regime and regimen; where their rare public appearances are carefully choreographed and recorded only by approved media, who dutifully snap the smiles of staged photo opportunities and then put the cameras away.
One such moment in Hisahito’s life was his fifth birthday when he went through rites that involved the donning of traditional flowing kimono trousers and having a symbolic haircut.
The ritual, to mark a birthday considered important in Japan, along with ages three and seven, saw him standing on a “Go” checkboard, wearing the trousers for the first time in his life.
An aide, in the clothes of the Heian period (794-1185), combed his hair and then cut a few strands, before Hisahito jumped from the raised gameboard.
The tradition is one of many that stretch back through the annals of Japan’s never-colonized history, where the emperor's presence legitimised the authority of powerful political clans and warlords.
United States-led forces, who occupied Japan after its defeat in World War II, stripped the role of its semi-divine status, but the hushed reverence remains to the present day, with no mainstream media reporting anything but the authorized version of imperial lives.
There are nods to modernity — Hisahito is the first royal child to go to a primary school other than the traditional Gakushuin, an institution built for the royals, while his oldest sister, Princess Mako, is a student at a liberal Christian university that is known for its diverse culture.
The middle child, 18 year-old Kako, is more unconventional still — one of a five-piece dance troupe at high school with carefully curled hair.
But changes like this do not come from within, said Yamashita, rather they are absorbed from the nation the family symbolizes.
“The imperial family are not supposed to seek change themselves,” he said. “They adjust to the state of the country and reflect the values of Japanese people of their time,” he said.
Until Hisahito’s birth in September 2006, traditionalists had been gripped by fears for the future of a family they claim has ruled Japan for more than 2,600 years.
The heir to the throne, Crown Prince Naruhito, and his wife had produced no son.
The crisis prompted the Japanese government to reluctantly consider reforms to the law that would allow Naruhito’s daughter, Princess Aiko, to ascend to the Chrysanthemum throne.
The debate was largely extinguished when the wife of Naruhito’s younger brother gave birth to Hisahito. On Naruhito’s death, the throne will pass to his brother, who in turn will pass it to his son, Hisahito.
In Britain, a change in the law means that whether William’s wife Katherine gives birth to a boy or a girl this month, the child will inherit the throne.
But Yamashita, like many traditionalists, believes such a change in Japan is not possible.
“If Princess Aiko were to take the throne, it would mean her child, whose father would come from an ordinary background, would be only linked to the imperial family through the maternal line,” he said.
“That has never happened in the past at least more than 1,000 years,” he said.
The debate has nothing to do with gender equality, said Yamashita, but is something in a different realm.
“This is simply the nature of the Japanese imperial family,” he said.