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A Royal Flux

A Harvard-educated working woman, Japan's Crown Princess Masako was supposed to reinvent the royal wife. But with the public clamoring for an imperial little one and the tabloids critiquing her every move, she seems to be succumbing to tradition.

May 23, 1997|TERESA WATANABE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TOKYO — The first tantalizing clue was the low heels that Crown Princess Masako wore to the National Bonsai Exhibition in February. Then she caught a cold, or so the Imperial Household Agency announced, and was unable to attend a reception for the German president last month.

That did it. To Japan's irrepressible tabloid press and royal watchers, the combination was a sure-fire sign of the joyous news all Japan had been waiting for: After nearly four years of marriage to Crown Prince and future Emperor Naruhito, Masako was finally pregnant!

"A Coming Stork X-Day!" trumpeted the Weekly Woman magazine, despite vehement and repeated denials by palace officials.

Whether Masako is really carrying a potential heir to the 2,600-year-old Chrysanthemum Throne remains unconfirmed. But the Royal Pregnancy Watch is just the latest media frenzy that has plagued Masako, now 33, since this Harvard-educated former Foreign Ministry bureaucrat left the high-profile stage of international diplomacy for the cloistered and hyper-controlled world of the imperial family.

Why hasn't she had a child? What's causing her skin rash? Is she miserable? Why has she dropped from view, becoming a virtually mute model of deferential womanhood when the world expected this multilingual internationalist to put an exciting new mark on the staid imperial family?

The public ponderings reached such a roar that last year, the crown couple themselves politely appealed for restraint. "A stork needs a quiet environment," Naruhito told reporters.

And Masako, in her first solo news conference in December, called reports about herself and her in-laws extreme and exaggerated.

"I am certainly not in a state of depression," she said, "so I hope no one will worry."

Still, she acknowledged that life is not entirely serene within the palace, where her every move is monitored and some of her rare personal disclosures have drawn harsh criticism. Her revelation last year that she had read works by Nobel laureate Kenzaburo Oe reportedly infuriated palace officials, because the writer is considered anti-imperial and refused to accept a national cultural achievement award from the emperor.

"At times, I experience hardship in trying to find the proper point of balance between traditional things and my own personality," she said during the three-question news conference, which so taxed her rarely heard vocal cords that she became hoarse.

"While placing importance on those old things that are good," she added, "is it not also important to take into account the demands of a new age?"

Many people here would seem to agree. They openly wish that their crown princess was allowed to use her considerable talents and intelligence for more than the bland ceremonial appearances at flower exhibitions, concerts and VIP receptions that are mainstays of royal duties.

After all, back in the days when she was just plain Masako Owada, the daughter of diplomat and current Ambassador to the United Nations Hisashi Owada, she lived in four countries and learned four languages--English, French, Russian and Spanish. Awash in academic pedigrees (Harvard magna cum laude, Oxford, Tokyo University law department), she wrote a thesis on "External Adjustments to Import Price Shocks: Oil in Japanese Trade."

After joining the Foreign Ministry, she interpreted for the likes of former U.S. Secretary of State James A. Baker III and prepared draft papers on such thorny U.S.-Japan issues as trade in semiconductors.

As tough as she was brainy, Masako even jabbed a finger furiously at a paparazzo once and reportedly called him a worm.

But after her 1993 fairy-tale Shinto wedding--in which she wore a waxed wig and a 12-layer kimono--Masako appeared to undergo a transformation. She rarely speaks in public or travels. Her last overseas trip was a Mideast visit in 1995, and that drew widespread criticism since it took her and the crown prince out of Japan after the devastating Kobe earthquake. Palace watcher and writer Toshiaki Kawahara said Masako was expected to attend the opening of a Japanese cultural center in Paris this month. But the palace sent Princess Norinomiya, her sister-in-law, in her place, further fueling rumors that she is pregnant.

Instead of economic and trade analyses, the princess writes waka, traditional Japanese poetry whose composition all royals are expected to master.

People buzz not about the princess' intellectual brilliance these days, but about her clothing and style. Women's magazines have breathlessly reported that weekly facials--along with gentle exfoliation with silk towels and Estee Lauder's Advanced Night Repair--have left her skin "bright and shiny." They copiously describe her elegant suits, jewelry and designer hats.

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