Lessons from Japan: Part 2

September 24, 2008

Yesterday I wrote about my recent trip to Japan and my reflections on what their low birth rate might mean for people facing primary and secondary infertility. I left you with a cliffhanger about something shocking that I learned. It has to do with the highest-profile infertile couple in the country.

When I was a little girl, I would imagine that I became a princess. Think Princess Diana, not Disney princess. That was never in the cards for me, but now I have discovered a new reason to be grateful that I am not royalty.

Princess Masako.

She is the wife of Naruhito, Crown Prince of Japan, elder son of the emperor and first in line for the throne.

In many ways, Masako represents a new breed of princess. She was born a commoner, but her pedigree would be considered outstanding in non-imperial countries. Her father is a diplomat and university professor. Masako grew up in Russia and the United States. She speaks 6 languages. She studied at Harvard, Oxford, and the University of Tokyo. She became a diplomat herself until quitting her job to become the Crown Princess.

The most notable feature of her reign is that she has been unable to produce a male heir. As a result, she has experienced tremendous personal struggles and rampant criticism.

Here’s a timeline, which I find helpful for understanding her situation.

Age 29: married
Age 29 to 35: no pregnancies, even though her #1 job as Crown Princess is to produce a future Emperor; meanwhile, her brother-in-law (her husband’s only brother) and his wife give birth to their second daughter
Age 36: Masako’s first pregnancy announced in the media; soon after, the media has to retract their announcement when Masako has a miscarriage
Age 37: pregnant again, probably conceived through IVF
a few days before 38th birthday: Masako gives birth to daughter Aiko

I will pause my timeline here. For most of us, after struggling with infertility for 7 years of marriage (presumably with 7 years of TTC), the birth of a daughter would be fantastic news. And it might even be enough. But that’s not the case when having a baby boy is your official mandate.

Age 39 to 41: Media and family pressure to produce a son; Masako allegedly undergoes IVF again and experiences another miscarriage; she increasingly withdraws from public life
Age 41: Depression officially revealed to media and public
Age 41 and 42: Political movement to allow daughter Aoki to become empress, pushed forward by government-appointed panel and prime minister
Age 43: Political movement abandoned when Masako’s sister-in-law gives birth to son

And so the role of women in Japan, which as I mentioned yesterday, is less progressive than in most western countries, had a chance to accelerate forward. And then progress stalled when it became unnecessary.

Masako’s experience highlights the many pressures that infertile women deal with, but magnified tremendously.

Being in a fertility race with family members like your sister-in-law.

Nosy mothers-in-law. Masako’s mother-in-law, the Empress, reportedly demanded to know each month when Masako got her period.

Having others assign blame willy-nilly. A German newspaper got into big international trouble when they ran a picture of Naruhito with the caption “dead trousers.”

Second-guessing yourself, or being second-guessed by others. The media questioned Masako’s motivation for baby-making, when for example, she would decide to travel.

Us against the world. Naruhito made a public announcement for people to back off from Masako, then got tremendous flack from his family for speaking out and not getting the approval of the Emperor.

And so, my trip to Japan taught me about an extraordinary woman whose private pain and years of attempts to have children were broadcast to her in-laws, the media, the country, and the world. A woman for whom infertility became so emotional that she had to hide away from everyone. A woman for whom youth was initially on her side, but whose attempts to conceive took so long that time became an enemy. A woman who did everything she could to have children, and with some success and much failure. For a princess, she sure has a lot in common with the rest of us.

13 Responses to “Lessons from Japan: Part 2”

  1. Michelle Says:

    I guess being a princess isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. I remember hearing bits and pieces of her story awhile back, and my heart does go out to her. Infertility sucks, but in the public eye, with cultural expectations, it has to be much, much worse. ICLW

  2. Danielle Says:

    Great story! I was really looking forward to part 2, and as always, you didn’t disappoint! My heart goes out to her and her daughter. I hops she doesn’t feel unwanted. I can’t imagine the guilt she feels for not “doing her job”. Sad.
    Enjoy your day!
    -D *ICLW*

  3. Nity Says:

    Thanks for sharing that. I haven’t kept up with news around the world lately, but I vaguely remember her having a girl. I didn’t think I consciously put together IF. It’s pretty amazing to think about the pressures we put on our own selves TTC, I cannot imagine having the pressure of a nation and a gov’t on top of that!!

    Not sure what type of drugs – it might just be general, but they don’t let you go home alone. I remember having my wisdom teeth out and I had to have someone there with me too. Maybe it’s just that they’re over cautious.


  4. mdep Says:

    Wow. That is just devestating. So sad that this already difficult situation has pushed her into an isolated depression that she must face under the pressure of her country.

  5. Arpee Says:

    Wow…how oppressive. I did not know this of Japan. Thanks for bringing this into light.

    Here I am with not a lot of people paying attention to my IF journey and boy, I still feel pressure.

    How much more this real-life, modern princess who is in the limelight? I feel for her…

  6. Kelly D Says:

    Great posts. As most of us know, having a girl in China is bad too, princess or not. I feel so sorry for this Japanese princess because the joy of being a mom was taken from her the minute she found out it was a girl and not the boy that everyone was hoping/expecting.

    We still have a long way to go with infertility awareness…

  7. Cara Says:

    What an amazing story! I love the perspective it brings to our variety of situations. Thanks for the history lesson too, cause you described it so vivdly! (I suck at history!)

  8. JuliaS Says:

    Wonderful post – I have always been touched by the story of Princess Masako. She is such a beautiful and intelligent woman – I cried for her when she had her first miscarriage.


  9. Dora Says:

    Wow, I didn’t know about that. Thanks.

  10. Anna Says:

    Your posts are always so well thought out and beautifully written. Beyond the great narrative your point has been well made.
    I’ve always wondered about countries such as India and China where boys are preferable to girls. Who do these parents expect their son to grow up and marry if only sons were born.
    I’ve seen to a lesser extent the same thing with Eva Longoria. I believe she made the mistake of making her personal life too accessible to the media and now they keep asking when she’s going to have a baby, whether she’s ‘working’ on it etc. I don’t think most people care, but, the gossip shows keep asking and talking about it as if anyone is interested. Poor Masako didn’t have a choice.
    Unfortunately, we all have our crosses to bear–in whichever form they manifest themselves–.
    The beauty, if such a term can be used, is to try to grow from such adversity. That which doesn’t kill us will only make us stronger.
    Thanks for the beautiful post.

  11. Sweetgeorgia Says:

    Wow, my heart goes out to this woman. To have to publicly live through infertility is unthinkably cruel.

  12. Nancy Says:

    Oh my goodness. Stories like that never even occurred to me. Wow.

    To see how an entire nation of people aren’t happy with a little girl.

  13. Jessica Says:

    Thank you for such an informative post. I wasn’t aware of any of this in Japan (culture or media coverage of her infertility). You learn something new every day.

    Here via ICLW

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