TOKYO (Reuters) - Emperor Akihito marks two decades on the Japanese throne on Wednesday, but the anniversary is set to pass quietly given the poor health of the royal family that some officials blame on internal squabbling.
The 20th anniversary of the death of his father, Emperor Hirohito, comes a few weeks after Akihito, 75, canceled his annual birthday news conference and other official duties due to high blood pressure and intestinal bleeding.
A senior official said Akihito was believed to be stressed over the future of Japan's monarchy and disputes with his eldest son, Crown Prince Naruhito, prompting recriminations between officials from the two households.
But some experts say the problems facing the imperial household go beyond the succession and reflect a gulf between the idealized image of the institution and its reality.
"Imperial Household Agency and East Palace (Naruhito's residence) at war" said one headline in the weekly tabloid Shukan Shincho after officials weighed in on both sides.
"Over the past few years, I have noticed that he constantly seems to be anxious about the various problems facing the imperial household, starting with the succession issue," the head of the Imperial Household Agency, Shingo Haketa, told domestic media last month when discussing Akihito's condition.
Haketa went on to list issues he said were causing friction, from concern over Naruhito's own health, after he was treated for a polyp, to doubt over who was overseeing treatment for his ailing wife, Crown Princess Masako, local media said.
Other officials pointed out that Masako had also been hurt by speculation over the cause of her condition, media reports say.
A former diplomat, she has been largely absent from the public eye for five years, suffering a mental disorder officials have said was caused by the stress of adapting to palace life. But pressure to produce a male heir also likely played a role.
The small size of the modern imperial Japanese household has led to a dearth of male heirs, although this dilemma was temporarily resolved by the birth two years ago of Prince Hisahito to the wife of Naruhito's younger brother, Prince Akishino.
Some observers say rifts within the imperial family likely stem from Naruhito's anger that moves to change the male-only succession law to allow his only child, Princess Aiko, to take the throne, were abandoned when Akishino's wife became pregnant.
"I think he was really ticked off," said Kenneth Ruoff, a history professor at Portland State University and author of "The People's Emperor: Democracy and the Japanese Monarchy 1945-1995."
"Now Crown Prince Naruhito and Crown Princess Masako don't even get to raise the heir to the throne," he said.
Tabloids have splashed increasingly bold stories on the imperial household across their covers in recent years, Ruoff said, although newspapers steer clear of gossip.
"They enjoyed for much of the post-war period an image as an ideal family," said Ruoff.
"Now they're obviously not an ideal family. They're a family which has its squabbles and so on," he added, saying that could make some Japanese feel closer to their monarch, while others might see it as an affront to imperial dignity.
Many agree that if any senior member of the imperial family were to breach the high standards of behavior expected of them, kid-glove treatment by mainstream media could stop, leaving them open to the paparazzi treatment faced by European royalty.
"The imperial family has a lot of self-control," said Yohei Mori of Seijo Gakuen University, an expert on the imperial household. "None of them have done anything really stupid. But if someone does, then the whole thing could change immediately."
Editing by Dean Yates