For more than a thousand years, the emperor was little more than a symbol of racial and cultural continuity (as he is once again today); real political and military power lay with a few large and wealthy families who produced generations of warlords and shoguns. Then, in 1869, as the country reopened to the West, the imperial capital was moved to Tokyo. Emperor Meiji was installed in Edo Castle, then the largest in the world, and, with Bismarck’s Germany as a model of concentrated military and spiritual might, a few ambitious imperial advisers drew up a new constitution, under which the emperor was transformed from the noblest of human aristocrats into an actual deity, a descendant of the sun goddess Amaterasu Omikami, and the spiritual head of State Shinto. Now the military was fighting directly for the emperor, who was a god. And fight they did: China, Russia, Korea, China again; and finally World War II.
I am clearly giving little more here than a thumbnail sketch of modern Japanese history, so allow me to add a couple of less monumental—but, I think, no less interesting—events from the recent past. 1924: Then Prince Regent Hirohito abolishes the practice of imperial concubinage. 1946: The emperor is heard by millions of Japanese for the first time over the radio, declaring—under General MacArthur’s orders—that he is not a god, but merely a man. 1959: Emperor Hirohito’s eldest son, Crown Prince Akihito, marries a “commoner,” Michiko Shoda, well born but not an aristocrat. The marriage is called a “love match” in the press, and is widely cheered by the public. 1961: Under the stress of her new existence, Princess Michiko, already the mother of a baby boy, suffers a nervous breakdown and completely loses her voice for seven months. The press is asked to refrain from hounding her while she recuperates, and for the most part they oblige. 1993: Crown Prince Naruhito, son of Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko, marries Masako Owada, the Harvard-educated, internationally raised, career-minded, nonaristocratic daughter of one of Japan’s highest-ranking diplomats. After three rejections, the Prince had finally gained his bride’s hand by promising to “protect” her from the pressures of imperial life. Late 2003: Crown Princess Masako, 41, after years of struggle to conceive a male heir (she gave birth to Princess Aiko in 2001), succumbs to “a nervous collapse” and will hardly be seen in public for the next three years.
A long way from the bed-hopping, flower-gazing days of Genji, to be sure; and yet, in its aspects of profound human insularity and institutionalized otherworldliness, its unquestioning separation of the real and the symbolic, and its rigid insistence that the members of the imperial family—the Empress and Crown Princess, most of all—remain obediently mute in public with regard to their own opinions and desires: perhaps today’s imperial situation really is the continuation of the ancient past that legend demands it be.
Certainly, after hearing my aunt’s account of her lunch with Empress Michiko, I found myself wondering about these women in their exquisite prison. Symbols who move and speak, whose days and characters are utterly not their own and never will be. People seen by all and known by none. The most elevated of figures, yet, in a profoundly sad sense, helpless and unprotected. Seen from the outside, these women are like holograms. If I wanted to show human beings beyond those high stone walls, I finally decided, I would have to make them up.