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Friday, 30 November, 2001, 22:37 GMT
The diplomatic princess
Crown Princess Masako and Crown Prince Naruhito
The Imperial couple have been married since 1993
By Japan analyst David Powers

When the Imperial Palace broke the news in January 1993 that Crown Prince Naruhito was going to marry a young career diplomat, Masako Owada, most people in Japan were not only delighted, but stunned.

Delighted - because it had seemed as though the heir to the Chrysanthemum Throne was going to be left on the shelf.


Everyone could hardly believe it when such a cosmopolitan high-flyer should agree to marry the heir to the Japanese Imperial throne

Stunned - because his choice of bride was not only beautiful and charming, but she seemed the epitome of the modern woman, who would have difficulty fitting into the fusty, traditional world of the palace.

The crown prince's search for a suitable wife had taken more than seven years. Indeed, it had seemed to go so badly that - in a break with palace protocol - his younger brother had married ahead of him, and already had his first child.

But once he made up his mind that Masako was the one for him, he was determined to get her.

Persuasion

First he had to persuade palace officials there was nothing wrong with her grandfather having been a businessman.

Then he had to persuade Masako herself. At first she demurred, but after several months of phone calls, eventually consented.

Crown Princess Masako at her wedding in 1993
Masako: From high-flying diplomat to princess
The Clintons had only just been installed in the White House, and the Japanese and foreign media alike instantly drew comparisons between the future crown princess and Hillary Clinton.

Both studied law and had successful, independent careers. They also had a reputation for speaking their mind.

Although such forthrightness may not be unusual in an American woman, it is still relatively rare in Japan, where women tend not to speak their minds in public. But then Masako Owada had no ordinary upbringing.

Career path

The daughter of a senior Japanese diplomat, she was born in Tokyo on 9 December 1963, but before long, she was to embark on a series of travels that gave her an insight into both the communist and capitalist way of life.

Her first experience of school was at kindergarten in Moscow during the depths of the Cold War. Then her father's job took her to New York, where she went to primary school.

After several years back in Tokyo, Masako went back to the States and high school in Boston.

From there, it was on to Harvard and a degree in economics. After graduation in 1985, she entered the faculty of law at Tokyo University - the training ground for the cream of Japanese bureaucrats.

Fluent in English and German, as well as her native Japanese, she entered the Japanese Foreign Ministry in 1987.

Like many diplomats destined for the top, but extremely unusually for a woman, the future crown princess was despatched to Balliol College in Oxford for further studies.

Once back in Tokyo, she was assigned to the team negotiating tough trade issues with Japan's main trading partner and adversary, the United States.

Small wonder, then, that everyone could hardly believe it when such a cosmopolitan high-flyer should agree to marry the heir to the Japanese Imperial throne - a role widely acknowledged as requiring the crown princess to melt into the background and avoid stealing the limelight from her husband.

Balance

It is a role, however, that Princess Masako has performed to perfection, doing the usual Imperial round of garden fetes, receptions and ceremonial events.

Shops have been stocking up on the popular Hello-Kitty doll in baby dress
The Japanese are getting ready to celebrate the long-awaited royal birth
Some commentators detected a hint of frustration when the crown princess gave her first news conference without her husband at her side.

After just over three years of marriage, she admitted: "At times I experience hardship in trying to find the proper point of balance between traditional things and my own personality."

However, her ability to blend in with palace ways came as little surprise to an unnamed fellow student at Oxford, who once told an American magazine that Masako was "very much the traditional Japanese woman, unlikely to stick her neck out".

One famous occasion when she did was at the announcement of her engagement. When asked how many children she would like, Masako joked about her future husband's love of music, and said she would leave the decision to him, adding: "Don't dare say you want enough to form a family orchestra!"

After eight years of marriage and a highly publicised miscarriage, both Princess Masako and her husband are no doubt delighted to have just one.

See also:

15 Nov 01 | Asia-Pacific
Japanese empress not on the cards
09 May 01 | Asia-Pacific
Japan considers female succession
10 Jul 01 | Asia-Pacific
Ancient birth ritual for Japanese princess
15 May 01 | Asia-Pacific
Japan crown princess pregnant
31 Dec 99 | Asia-Pacific
Japanese princess suffers miscarriage
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