FOR decades they have been the hidden power behind the Chrysanthemum throne, jealously guarding the ancient traditions of the Japanese imperial household.
But suddenly senior courtiers have found themselves in the eye of a media storm, forced to defend themselves in public and suffer the indignity of being the subject of television talk shows and magazine articles.
The actions of the Imperial Household Agency have been under intense scrutiny since an extraordinary press conference on Monday by the crown prince, the direct heir to the throne.
Before he flew to Europe, Prince Naruhito, 44, explained his wife, Crown Princess Masako, would not join him as intended. He said she had been taken ill as a result of efforts to crush her individuality and subvert her personality.
"For the past ten years, she has tried very hard to adapt to the ways of the imperial family," the prince said. "To me, she appears totally exhausted from it."
A multilingual graduate of Harvard and Oxford, the princess, 40, was on the fast track for diplomats when she met the prince. They were married in 1993.
"It is true that there were moves to negate Masako’s career and her personality, which was influenced by that career," the prince said, adding that he hopes "from his heart" that she will be able to join him on future trips.
By British standards his comments might have seemed mild. But in Japan, where reading between the lines of official communications is an art form, they have sparked talk of a constitutional crisis.
The clash is on several levels. The princess is a modern, educated and intelligent woman who was clearly going places in Japan’s male-dominated society.
Since her marriage, she has been reined in and leaks indicate she was scolded for expressing her opinions and even having the temerity to walk in front of the prince on one early official engagement.
In another telling tale, at an official dinner she was seated between then-presidents Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin and chatted in fluent English and Russian with both.
In Lesley Downer’s book The Tale of Masako, a royal watcher commented she would get in trouble for this "indiscretion"; "The Royal Family are not ambassadors. She doesn’t need to be able to speak English, she has interpreters for that. Her job is to smile."
Perhaps more importantly, at least for the agency, the princess has not yet produced an heir to the throne. The birth of her daughter, Princess Aiko, two years ago was greeted with outward joy in a dynasty that last produced the male heir required by law for the throne in 1965.
Behind the closed doors of the palace, however, consternation reigns over the fact that no son has been born. No indications are evident that Masako will bear any more children.
With the prince still out of the country, the Imperial Household Agency chief, Toshio Yuasa, said at a news conference on Thursday: "When the crown prince comes back, I want to meet him directly, listen to his true intentions and improve what I can."
But commentators suggest the scandal might not be so easy to tackle.
"The whole press conference [by the prince] was shocking to the nation and, more importantly, to the Imperial Household Agency because it was clear that he was talking directly to them," said Makoto Watanabe, a professor of communications at Hokkaido University.
"The message was ‘help us’. He was talking about the princess and the whole imperial family and the appeal was as a human being, not as a prince.
"It would not be an exaggeration to say that it is crisis time inside the agency as this appeal has to be the most shocking comment from the imperial family since the end of the Second World War."