The Reluctant Princess

Her battered gray desk on the seventh floor at Japan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs was no different from all the others. The bureaucrats who preside over Japan take perverse pride in just how remarkably grungy their offices are. They are cramped; most are stuffed with piles of documents and newspapers; in Tokyo's suffocating summers the air conditioning shuts off at 6 o'clock, and then everyone sweats together Japanese style-in one big group. They take perverse pride, too, in their absurdly long hours, beavering away into the night, even after everyone else in a nation of workaholics has gone home. There are nights when the people who run Japan simply open cots in their offices to catch a few hours' sleep.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs was where a 29-year-old Japanese woman named Masako Owada had chosen to make her life, and this is the life she led: though her father was, and is, a senior official in the ministry, his daughter had risen the same way as everyone else: brains, good schooling and diligence. She went to elite universities, Harvard and Oxford; she graduated magna cum laude; learned, as the child of a globe-trotting diplomat, five languages, and then passed a difficult ministry entrance examination. When she joined-one of just three women in her class of junior bureaucrats-he did the grunt work like everyone else, compiling briefing papers on trade issues and translating tedious documents.

Smart, thorough, and fluent in English, in 1990 she got a desk in the prestigious North American division, where she sat among the men who manage the most important foreign entanglement Japan has-its tortuous relationship with the United States. If not necessarily a rising star, she was respected by her peers in a way few women in Japan are. In one of the country's important ministries, she had done something remarkable. Masako Owada had become one of the boys.

The Japanese see their monarchs only fleetingly. A sumo tournament here, a charity function there, the occasional state dinner. Otherwise, Japan's modern emperors and their wives have traditionally spent their time on the grounds of the Imperial Palace in central Tokyo, cloistered well beyond a deep moat that surrounds acres of densely wooded real estate. It is one of the most expensive pieces of land in the world, and it is a world apart.

On June 9, Masako Owada, Japan's reluctant princess, will be driven over the moat, in a very real sense never to return. She is going to be Japan's next empress, the chosen bride of Crown Prince Naruhito, 33, Emperor Akihito's elder son. Her life as a diplomat at an end, she will now be absorbed into a world that seems strangely anachronistic, even to many Japanese.

This is the new life the thoroughly modern Masako will lead: there will be ladies-in-waiting attending her every movement; most people will speak to her only in the stilted honorific language used to address royalty in Japan. She will be surrounded by the bureaucrats who manage the affairs of Japan's royalty, housed in the Imperial Household Agency. They are archly conservative guardians of the imperial image in a country that regards its royals, as the Japanese Constitution reads, "as the symbol of the state and the unity of the people." If she simply wants to have friends over, the kunaicho, as the agency is called in Japanese, must approve. And "if she is not strong," says Shuichi Kato, a prominent Japanese intellectual, "she will be their puppet. They will orchestrate her every move for the rest of her life."

That prospect would (and did) make any number of women in Japan shudder. That someone as independent as Owada would accede to it is extraordinary. Britain's Diana, Princess of Wales, for all her bitterness about the freedom she gave up to marry an aloof prince, would likely not trade places with Owada. The future empress must now become as familiar with the antiquated ceremonial roles her new position requires as she is today with Japan's trade positions. Shinto was once the state religion in Japan, and the royal family is now its symbolic redoubt, the emperor its spiritual head. Until the end of World War II, the emperor was officially regarded as a living god, a direct descendant of Niniginomikoto, the rice god, and grandson of Amaterasu, the sun goddess and spiritual mother of all Japanese.

Though few Japanese spend much time on Shinto rites in their own lives, the rituals are the emperor's prime responsibility. He plants rice in the spring, harvests it in the fall and then offers the new crop to the Shinto gods; to honor his ancestors he attends frequent memorial services. Earlier this year Owada had to take a crash course from a group of elderly instructors on a host of archaic subjects, including Shinto rituals and the waka, or traditional poetry, that royal family members are expected to write. Ever studious, she zipped through the tutorial in 50 hours, about half the time the course has taken previous princesses.

Masako Owada, whether she likes it or not, is going to become modern Japan's most powerful symbol. She will put a desperately needed human face on a country known more for its products than its people. In a group-oriented society, she is an individual who will stand out at home and abroad-inevitably, like Diana, overshadowing a retiring husband. Her ultimate acceptance of the prince's persistent entreaties late last year thrilled most Japanese. What had become an embarrassing effort to find a companion for the young man who will be emperor had ended spectacularly. Owada, intelligent, attractive, cosmopolitan-for six long years the focus of the prince's hopes-had finally said yes.

To many women the world over-and in the United States in particular-Masako Owada's story does not read like a fairy tale. It is instead the story of their lives writ large. A story of painful compromises, of trade-offs that men do not confront. She is a woman who had a life of her own making, but finally opted, under the weight of heavy societal pressure, to become a wife and a mother, to be defined in life by who it is she married.

Owada will be a symbol for 21st-century Japan, to be sure. But the question only beginning to register, both in Japan and abroad, is: a symbol of what? Is she-and symbolically, modern Japan-taking a step forward, or a step back? Perhaps she is now relegated to a "woman's" role in a staunchly conservative country-but perhaps, years from now, when she finally becomes empress, she will be Japan's most visible diplomat, a link between her country and the rest of the world.

How Owada herself sees her role, her potential place in history, is not at all clear. She cannot exactly call a press conference to discuss it. In the couple's only meeting with the Japanese press, a tense Owada was asked questions like "How's your cooking?" and "How many children would you like to have?" With eyes cast downward, Owada deferred to her fiance, joking only that she hoped he didn't want "to have enough to form a family orchestra."

In truth, the only clue Owada has provided about how she views the choice she has made is the agonizingly protracted period it took for the prince to win her. Her initial lack of enthusiasm for the role she finally came to accept will become part of her legend. In October 1986, just after passing the Foreign Ministry's entrance exam, she was invited to an afternoon tea party at a palace near the imperial grounds in Tokyo. The party honored Princess Elena of Spain, and the host was Akihito, the current emperor.

The invitation was no accident. This was what the Japanese called an o-miai--an arranged meeting, in the hope that it would lead to something. Arranged marriages in Japan remain relatively common. Nearly 13 percent of today's Japanese couples met with the aid of a go-between--including the current emperor and empress. The Japanese are nothing if not pragmatists, and that extends to their view of romance as well. Many consider the West's obsession with romantic love as naive and even destructive, and point to U.S. divorce rates as evidence. For the crown prince and Owada, the go-between was Toru Nakagawa--then a powerful figure in Japan's Foreing Ministry. According to Japanese press accounts, there were 40 women invited to the party whose names had already been printed on a list given to the crown prince. At the last minute, Owada's name was added, in the handwritten scrawl of a functionary at the Imperial Household Agency.

She arrived in a striking blue dress and caught the prince's eye immediately. It was love at first sight-in one direction. He approached and stood in front of her. "You must be Miss Owada. I am glad you came." He congratulated her for passing the Foreign Ministry exam. They chatted idly for a few minutes, then parted. The crown prince knew it then, says a source close to the family. He had met Miss Right.

Owada, however, wasn't interested. She had spent much of her lifetime abroad--early on in Moscow, where her father served in the embassy-then in New York; in 1979, when he took a sabbatical and taught international relations at Harvard, she moved to Belmont, Mass., where she attended the local public high school, got good grades and played an occasional game of softball. She did not go, subsequently, to Harvard, to Japan's elite Tokyo University and then to Oxford with the idea of becoming empress. Her friends say Owada was quietly driven, always intrigued with international affairs and in particular with Japan's role in the world. Toward the end of her undergraduate stay at Harvard, she decided she would follow her father to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

That meant that the crown prince-and Japan-had a problem. During Japan's version of the roaring '80s, as the economy soared, young women plowed into the work force in record numbers. Many lived at home- Owada included-saved money and enjoyed traveling abroad on the back of a strong yen. In this environment, the notion of immediately marrying anyone became less and less attractive to Japanese women. And the idea of opting for the painfully formal world of the royals seemed, for a time, out of the question for every single woman in the country.

Some who found out that they were on the kunaicho's list of potential candidates hurriedly found husbands, if only to be able to live a relatively normal life. Two other women in whom the prince took an interest, according to Japanese press reports, both rebuffed him. As time passed, his fruitless search became an increasing embarrassment to his family and the bureaucrats who manage their affairs. It was hardly his fault; by all accounts he is a friendly, intelligent man with a reasonably good sense of humor. No, the constant rejection served as powerful confirmation of just how removed the royal family had become from the dynamic country that had grown up just outside the moat.

The prince kept asking about Owada--but his minders objected. Her grandfather had run a company that had, under a previous president, pumped a deadly chemical into a bay in southern Japan. The Owada family's indirect link with the disaster was thought to have disqualified her. It may have, as far as the bureaucrats were concerned. But the prince kept pushing, making it clear that it was she he was most interested in. An April 1987 meeting arranged by a member of the extended royal family had only piqued his interest further. Intermediaries then made it known to Owada that Prince Hiro-as he is known informally-was very interested. It wasn't quite a formal proposal, but the intent was clear. So, too, was Owada's response. She still wasn't interested.

The prince, sources who follow the royal family say, was depressed by her rejection. Friends say she was unnerved by his interest. She told them, essentially, that he wasn't her type. Some sources say her father shared her doubts, and at one point told a friend that he knew how difficult it would be if the prince kept up the pressure. "I hope he would give her up and his attention would switch to someone else," he said. "It's very hard to say 'No' clearly."

For a long time, Prince Hiro let it lie. He passed the time meeting candidates who were as uninterested in him as he was in them. In July 1988, Owada went off to Oxford, returning two years later. She then spent her time burrowing into the U.S.Japan trade disputes, writing speeches for Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita and, in one instance, serving as translator for a meeting between U.S. Secretary of State James Baker and Foreign Minister Michio Watanabe. She had many friends, including some foreigners, and, like so many other single women in Japan, took off for occasional weekend ski trips.

Masako Owada was living a normal life, in short, but by 1992, the clamor about the bachelor prince grew so intense that the royal minders finally asked the press to lay off the story. In a telling indication of just how much clout the throne still has, the press-not usually so quiescent-agreed. The "living symbol of Japanese unity" was in serious trouble.

Masako and the prince had not seen each other for five years when, last summer, another meeting was quietly arranged at the home of a former diplomat in Tokyo. They chatted, but the prince apparently didn't press the issue. Then, just a few weeks later, in a walk beside the imperial pond outside Tokyo, he did. And again, remarkably, Owada demurred. The minders frantically sought to figure out why she could not be swayed. Apparently they learned that she had deep reservations about how she-like the current empress, a commoner-would be treated if she said yes. Akihito's wife, Empress Michiko, is widely believed to have had a nervous breakdown in the early '60s, broken by the hazing she received from the Imperial Household Agency and other members of Japan's aristocracy. She endured, however, and has now emerged as a strong figure within the court-too strong for some, in fact. "The emperor is henpecked," insists one right-wing intellectual with close ties to the royal family. At some point-it is not clear precisely when or under what circumstances-the current Empress of Japan spoke to Owada, reassuring her that times had changed, that she would not confront the same antagonism. According to Japanese press accounts, Masako's resistance began to crumble. The pressure was on.

By some accounts, Owada concluded after speaking to the empress that she was going to have to relent-there was too much pressure, too many reporters hanging around waiting to bust the embargo, and the institution, ultimately, was bigger than she was. Duty called. Some royal watchers claim she didn't say yes immediately because she wanted to negotiate terms-how, exactly, the imperial bureaucrats would be kept off her back. Others, including several friends, say that is nonsense. They say she came to like the prince and simply changed her mind. It is not clear what, if any, role her father may have played in her decision. He has insisted all along that it was his daughter's choice alone. And on Dec. 12,1992, she made it. "I will do my best to be of service to Your Highness," she told him.

On the afternoon the news went public, Japan's major newspapers all printed special, souvenir editions. For the next day there was nothing but euphoric Masako coverage on TV. It was-and has been ever since-a press frenzy on a magnitude unimaginable even in America, and it did reflect the reaction of most Japanese. Most were delighted. But not all: there are more than a few young Japanese women who were profoundly depressed by the choice Masako Owada finally made. Mizuho Fukushima, a 37-year-old Tokyo attorney, is among them. Owada "Surrendered to the pressure from the old-fashioned, traditional imperial system," she says. "She was a lively young woman at the ministry, but look how she has become. She has become so passive in her fashion, manners and behavior. She won't even look up when she talks. I feel sorry for her and I think she is wasting her talent."

To those who believe Masako Owada has other ideas-that she is a step forward, not back-there was one hopeful moment at the engagement press conference. It gave some credence to the notion that she didn't relent before using some of her diplomatic skills. In response to a question about what, finally, won her over, Owada said that the prince had told her, "You might have fears and worries about joining the imperial household. But I will protect you for my entire life." The implication was clear. She would have a certain amount of freedom that other empresses have not had-and that he, the future emperor, would make sure of it.

What Masako Owada may do with that opportunity, if it's really there, cannot be known. She could, conceivably, push for more frequent trips abroad, particularly within Asia, to help extinguish bitter memories of Japan's wartime brutality. She could also stump more visibly for causes she believes are worthy. Still, in the end, it may not amount to much.

Japan does change, but only glacially. The characterization of Owada that is taking root in the United States-"Japan's Hillary"-is naive. The country's Constitution, for one thing, virtually precludes anything but a ceremonial role for the royals. Just as importantly, Japan remains a profoundly conservative place-a society where so often things are done simply because it's the way they've always been done. Masako Owada, the diplomat, will tread oh so carefully.

June 9 will be a national holiday in Japan. After a private Shinto ceremony, there will be a giant parade in Tokyo. Then, over the next three days, festive banquets-six in all, with 2,700 guests invited from all over the world. Then a gifted young woman of the world will step across the moat in the middle of Tokyo, into another age. Godspeed. We hope to see you again.

38% of Japan's work force is female, compared with 41% of the U.S's.

6% of managerial jobs are held by women-versus

34% in the U.S. and 21% in Sweden.

11 minutes per day is the average time spent by Japanese men on household chores, compared with 108 minutes* by American men.

25.9 years is the average age at which Japanese women first marry. Men tend to marry later, at 28.4 years.

2.5 million more single men than women exist in Japan's under-40 age group.

3d most important reason for getting married, say Japanese women: financial security. It was 11th in importance to American women.

1.26 per 1,000 people divorced in 1990, versus 2.89 per 1,000 in the U.K. and 4.8 per 1,000 in the U.S.