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COLUMN ONE : A Bride All Japan Has Advice For : Masako Owada is about to cross the moat forever, going from diplomat to royal wife. She is getting an earful from everyone because both conservatives, feminists wish the prince had picked someone else.


TOKYO — The future Empress of Japan walked into the televised press conference a few respectful steps behind her husband-to-be. She kept her eyes downcast. She wore white gloves and pearls, a prim, pale yellow dress and a pillbox hat. As she and her fiance, Crown Prince Naruhito, fielded the pre-screened questions, Masako Owada barely looked up. When she spoke, it was in soft, nervous tones.

Mizuho Fukushima, a feminist attorney, saw submission. Where was the confident diplomat, the woman who helped manage U.S.-Japan trade talks in high-powered business suits and looked people straight in the eye?

Hideaki Kase, a nationalistic writer, saw aggressiveness. Owada spoke 26 seconds longer than the prince. He, besotted, turned to her some 20 times, indicating he was already "henpecked." And she had the temerity to say she would make him happy, an unimaginably cheeky presumption.

Hiroko Miyatake, a 70-year-old homemaker, saw a fabulous fairy tale. How smart and beautiful Owada was, voicing her own opinions in a way that women of Miyatake's generation dared not. How chivalrous the prince was, pledging to protect his bride "with all of my might." Miyatake wept with emotion.

As Owada, 29, prepares for Japan's biggest social event in 34 years--the royal wedding to Naruhito, 126th heir to the 2,600-year-old Chrysanthemum Throne, next Wednesday--she will need all of her diplomatic skills to juggle the impossible plethora of public expectations. She should be modern. She should be traditional. She should be assertive and submissive. She should break new ground and fall in line.

As a former diplomat schooled in four countries, a speaker of five languages and the first career woman to enter the Royal Family, she is urged by modernists to open up the insular imperial institution. No, say foes of change, she should submit to tradition and allow the archconservative institution, controlled by Japan's most forbidding bureaucrats, to shut her down.

And she should do all this with a pretty smile and intelligent mien, maintaining the glow of a fairy princess swept up in the national romance of the decade.

It would seem a Herculean task. But those who know Owada say that if anyone can manage the conflicting demands and outrageous expectations, she can.

"She will adapt to the institution to be effective but use her skills to obtain her ultimate goals," said Kuniko Inoguchi, a political science professor at Tokyo's Sophia University, who lived across the street from Owada while they were both at Harvard in the early 1980s. "She is not stubborn and (she is) very wise, and she knows how to live with the bureaucratic system because she was a member of it."

Officially, the Empress of Japan has few duties. She is the patron of the Japanese Red Cross. Every May, she blesses the silkworms on the palace grounds. Otherwise, she assists the emperor at ribbon-cuttings and hospital visits, VIP receptions and Shinto rites. The plate for the crown princess is even more bare.

But Inoguchi says she expects that Owada will carve out a more active role in international goodwill missions, although the Royal Family is constitutionally barred from voting, running for public office or other political activities. In particular, the professor hopes that Owada will take up the causes of the poor and disabled, especially since her own background as the eldest daughter of the Foreign Ministry's top bureaucrat, Hisashi Owada, was so privileged.

Challenging the System?

Others venture bolder ideas. Some women are hoping that Owada will challenge the imperial system of male succession by claiming the throne for a daughter if one happens to be the first-born. Women have ascended to the throne in the distant past, but in 1889 a law was established making males the only rightful heirs--supposedly because pregnancy and menstruation prevent women from carrying out royal duties.

Fukushima, the feminist, is skeptical that Owada will have the power or wherewithal to change anything at all. She, like scores of other commentators, sees Owada shrinking before her eyes into a marionette manipulated by the puppeteers of the Imperial Household Agency. The changes, so obvious at the Jan. 19 press conference, not quite two weeks after the engagement was announced, have continued. Carefully practiced smiles have replaced spontaneous expression; Owada's formerly famous long stride has shortened to daintier steps.

And, in the talk of the town, her choice of clothing has changed drastically. The dark colors and smartly tailored suits of her diplomatic days have given way to the pale yellows and pinks, feather headbands and pillbox hats of a princess-to-be.

"Those light colors don't suit her, but they make her seem less self-assertive," Piko, a television commentator, said on a recent talk show, "Naisu Dei" ("Nice Day"), as his fellow guests nodded in emphatic agreement.

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