March 18, 2009

Princess Masako: Prisoner of the Chrysthanthemum Throne by Ben Hills

BOOK #: 19
CHALLENGES: 21 Cultures Challenge, Triple 999 Challenge
RATING: So-So (2 stars)

Every little girl dreams of marrying a prince one day, moving into a palace, and living happily ever after. Well, this story was no fairy tale.

The Japanese Crown Prince, Naruhito, fell in love with a commoner, Masako Owada. Masako was a modern woman, educated at Harvard and worked at the Foreign Ministries. In 1993, she finally decided to take Naruhito up on his offer to marry him. This decision would change her life in drastic ways. The mysterious Japanese royal family is steeped mystical and religious traditions that are in direct opposition to Masako's modern world. Being the princess, Masako's life is dictated by the 'Men in Black'. She is made to follow ancient rules and pressured to produce a male heir to the throne to keep the world's oldest royal dynasty from becoming extinct.

I imagine that, like me, you have found this to be a fascinating subject for a biography. There is royalty, traditions, internal conflicts, external conflicts, everything to make a good story. Alas, Ben Hills manages to take what could be a fantastic tale and turns it into a boring hodgepodge that made even the ADD reader in me groan.

The first thing that bothered me about the book was the very dry writing. Much like a person identified in the book, Hills doesn't use two words when 20 will work. Even the juicy details surrounding whether Masako and Naruhito would conceive a child, much less a son, were laid flat and dehydrated on the pages. There was no sparkle to the story, no excitement.

The second issue I found was that Hills jumped around in this book like a kangaroo (a better metaphor escapes me at the moment). There is an attempt at flow- the chapters are separated into distinct sections of the story. But within the chapters, Hills goes back and forth between stories. What I already read in the preface comes back to haunt me word-for-word in Chapter 3. Details I read about in chapter one resurface in chapters 4 and 5. Why? Does he not think I will remember? A recap is one thing, but telling the same details over again insults my intelligence.

The last problem I had with Hill's tale of Princess Masako is that there is far less information to tell than the size of the book would lead you to believe. In addition to the repetition, Hills stretches bite-size morsels into pages upon pages of lifeless writing. Succinct is not a word in Hills' vocabulary, nor apparently in his editor's.

I cannot give this book a rating of "Mind-Numbing" because of two reasons. One, I was able to finish the book, only skipping parts here and there that were monotonous. Two, there were interesting parts, including Empress Michiko's remarks about husband, Akihito, and how he grew up without familial love and, instead, in the hands of scholars, maids and military officers:

"When I hear from him about how much he wanted a family, and had to live his life without his family, I begin to cry. When he told me that 'I must not die before I have my own family', never in my life have I heard such heart-breaking words, not even in a novel. Therefore I decided that I would try my hardest to make a warm home for this prince who had to endure living 25 years of his life this way."

I also liked reading about how Akihito and Michiko, Naruhito's parents, not only raised their son (well, mostly Michiko did), but also how they broke off from the imperial past in several ways. This knowledge made me sad when I discovered that Masako did not get the chance to bring the royal family out of the past as much as the country had hoped she might.

Overall, the story of Japan's Crown Princess Masako and the Chrysanthemum Throne is interesting, but I don't recommend reading about it from Hills.


  1. I love books set in Asia - sorry to see this one fell flat.

  2. I love books set in Asia, as well. It was disappointing. I will be reading and reviewing more set in Asia, so look for those to come!

    Thanks for your comment. :)

  3. At first I was thinking this would be a great choice for the Japanese Literature Challenge, then oops! I realized it wouldn't be the further I read of your review. Sorry it was a disappointment; glad for the heads up!


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