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    Books

    One nice thing about being on vacation was that during the inclement weather and the flights, I had time to read without that nagging feeling that I should be doing something for the office instead. The books I chose were worth investing time in, though I thought they both felt kind of short of what I’d hoped.

    One was Princess Masako: Prisoner of the Chrysanthemum Throne, a themed biography of sorts by Australian reporter Ben Hills. I don’t remember seeing any egregious factual mistakes, though there were little inaccuracies and self-contradictions; but I was distracted by the way Hills has trouble controlling his voice. There are writers who can move from journalistic sobriety to flippancy to human-interest bathos with ease; Hills isn’t one of them. Sure, that’s subjective on my part, but when the meat of a book is speculation–as an attempt at explicating how the forces operating on Masako got her into her current state necessarily is–its author needs to come off as unusually trustworthy and sensible. The swings in tone are jarring and subliminally make Hills seem a bit flighty.

    I was also a little unsettled at the unremittingly flat way Masako was cast as a victim. One doesn’t want to underestimate the way the royals in Japan are treated by their handlers as living museum pieces, which Hills is hardly the first to document. (Under pressure from the palace governing agency and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Kodansha isn’t going to publish the planned Japanese translation.) But as he himself notes, plenty of other eligible women turned down the opportunity to marry Crown Prince Naruhito. I was especially charmed by those unnamed candidates who threatened to make themselves unfit to be royal brides by getting body piercings or tattoos–never underestimate the resourcefulness of the Japanese woman!

    Naruhito’s mistake seems to have been in promising Masako that she could channel her talent for and credentials in diplomacy into modernizing the role of the Crown Princess and, later, Empress; Masako’s mistake was in believing him. Even so, she was an experienced woman of the world by that point and presumably knew how to weigh her options. She also had the example of the current Empress Michiko to learn from. No, she probably didn’t know exactly what she was getting into–otherwise, it’s hard to imagine that she would have accepted the prince’s proposal. But part of being an adult who makes a risky decision is that you might lose.

    Princess Masako was better than Jimmy Stewart: A Biography, which I picked up while hanging out with Eric. I was distracted by Marc Eliot’s inability to do basic math and by his factual errors. (For a gay man, I’m hardly a film expert, but I’m pretty sure that if Auntie Mame had won the Oscar for Best Picture, I’d have remembered. It’s also pretty obvious that you can’t say Cary Grant retired from acting a half-decade before making North by Northwest.) And to read Eliot’s summaries of Stewart’s own movies with Hitchcock, you’d never know how deeply, powerfully disturbing they are. In fact, nothing Eliot writes indicates why Stewart was a fascinating enough character to warrant a four-hundred-page biography.

    3 Responses to “Books”

    1. Shu Naka says:

      You’ve created a wonderful blog. I haven’t seen very many Japanese post comments, so I thought I might as well fill in the deficit on occasion(and also because I’m too lazy to make my own blog). Also like to say I’m really impressed by your mastery of the Japanese language, and the way it was aided your understanding of everything from politics to pop culture. Kudos.

      Yes, I agree that Masako’s a big girl and that she has to take partial responsibility for what she’s gotten herself into. But you know, at the same time, it seems she was partially forced into her predicament by the ramifications on her father’s career. I can imagine there may have been some subtle pressure from the kunai-cho hinting on what may happen to her father’s position if she were to refuse. But yeah, I know, it’s only specualtion. One really sad thing about her siutation, though, is that there’s no way to get out of it.

    2. Sean Kinsell says:

      Shu, Hills did discuss that in his book–the probability that Hisashi Owada was pressed into withdrawing his opposition to the match in exchange for not finding his diplomatic career blocked. But I’ve never seen any indication that it was more of a factor toward the end than it had been all along…which is to say, it doesn’t seem, to the extent that we can speculate, to have been what pushed Masako over the edge into being willing to accept the crown prince’s suit.

      Of course, as you say, now she’s basically screwed. One of the really heartbreaking things about the whole affair is that she and Naruhito seem genuinely devoted to each other. It isn’t possible to know, but it’s easy to imagine that she wouldn’t take the opportunity to leave the palace to save her own sanity even if it arose, because she’d have to leave him and Aiko behind.

    3. Shu Naka says:

      No, I guess the chances of her pulling a Diana are about as remote as Shintaro Ishihara saying he’s retiring to become a pacifict monk. But I think it’s crossed a lot of people’s mind what exactly would happen if in some Philip K. Dick-like alternate universe, she did suddenly decide she’s becoming a liberated woman. Imagine the effect on the whole Japanese cultural landscape. The simulation would probably make a better novel than the Da Vinci Code.

      Anyway, looking forward to more of your comments, especially on Japanese politics (the weird Tokyo governor’s race, maybe?).

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