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Royal Prince Skipping Imperial Banquet to Attend Fish Festival

April 16, 1996 GMT

TOKYO (AP) _ It’s pretty tame stuff by the standards of British royal scandals, but Japan’s tabloid press is agog and palace watchers are scandalized.

Can an imperial prince skip a banquet for President Clinton _ among Japan’s most important royal events this year? To look at catfish?

The palace says yes.

When members of Japan’s royal family take their places Wednesday night for the banquet, Prince Akishino, second in line to the Chrysanthemum Throne, won’t be there.

The reason: The prince, an amateur ichthyologist, is traveling to Thailand for a festival dedicated to the rare giant catfish, now in season in the Mekong River.

A palace spokesman said Akishino’s wife, Princess Kiko, will attend the Clinton dinner alone.

The Clintons are unlikely to take umbrage. The president himself canceled a state visit to Japan on short notice last November to deal with a budget standoff in Washington.

But in Japan’s dutiful and painfully protocol-conscious royal family, skipping a state dinner is a highly unusual move. The prince’s plans have prompted public criticism _ a rarity in Japan, where unkind words about the royals are all but taboo.

``The prince really should have canceled his plans to go to Thailand,″ said Minoru Hamao, a former imperial chamberlain responsible for educating the current emperor and crown prince. ``I think he is being selfish. Public duty must come first.″

The reaction in the popular media has also been unusually harsh.

``Why are private matters taking precedence over public duties?″ scolded the Shukan Shincho, a popular weekly magazine.

The Shukan Bunshun, another weekly, was jocular. ``Clinton Loses Out to Catfish,″ it announced.

Palace officials have stressed that it isn’t always possible for all the princes and princesses to attend every banquet. They also have noted that Akishino wasn’t the only imperial family member to skip this one.

But the palace acknowledged the others have better excuses.

Two of those sitting it out Wednesday, including the late Emperor Hirohito’s 93-year-old widow, are too frail. Another is mourning the recent death of her mother. A fourth has undergone surgery for throat cancer and prefers not to eat in public.

Officially worshiped as the direct descendants of the sun goddess until the end of World War II, Japan’s imperial household continues to enjoy the deep respect of most Japanese.

In contrast with their British counterparts, Japanese media tend to treat their royal household with extreme deference. Royals are referred to by the most respectful words. Their private lives usually are deemed off-limits.

The imperial family, in turn, generally conducts itself with utmost discipline. Divorces are unheard of, public comments are kept brief and discreet, and official duties are taken very seriously.

Their role has been largely ceremonial since the emperor renounced his divinity at the end of World War II, and welcoming foreign dignitaries is among the royals’ most important remaining functions.

As the second son of Emperor Akihito, Akishino has far more freedom to pursue his private hobbies than his staid elder brother, Crown Prince Naruhito, heir to the throne.

Naruhito, of course, is expected to attend Wednesday’s banquet.