Silent Princess

MASAKO OWADA BEGAN TO disappear on June 9, 1993, the day of her wedding. She was a magna cum laude graduate of Harvard, an up-and-coming diplomat who spoke five languages. But on her marriage day, the thoroughly modern Masako disappeared under a traditional, wax-encrusted hairdo and a 30-pound wedding dress in the style of the 10th-century Heian dynasty. Mincing along behind her groom, she was transformed into the crown princess, and future empress, of Japan. Three years later, she has become almost invisible. She has made only one public appearance on her own, a speech to a local charity. She and her husband, Crown Prince Naruhito, attend public functions, and last year they consoled victims of the Kobe earthquake. But most of the time, Princess Masako, 32, is treated like a precious ornament, something to be admired on special occasions and hidden away the rest of the time. The rigidly traditional monarchy has given her one overwhelming duty -- to bear a male heir -- and that, so far, she has been unable to do.

Many Japanese newlyweds don't want children right away -- or even at all -- but an entire country is waiting for results from Masako. "The Third Year Without Pregnancy -- Masako's Crucial Year," one women's weekly blared in 1995. Naoko Ueda, one of a few personal friends who see the crown princess in private, says Masako "seems happy and relaxed." Prince Naruhito, 36, has joked that the "stork" will probably come at "my pace" -- a jovial reference to the fact that it took him six years to persuade Masako to marry him. But if the royal couple is relaxed about their childless condition, loyal subjects are decidedly uptight. "Her job is to make a baby, to ensure the succession," says Akira Hashimoto, an old classmate of Masako's father-in-law, Emperor Akihito. "If she is not able to meet public expectations, I believe the couple should have a medical examination."

When Masako became engaged to Naruhito, many Japanese hoped she would shake the dust off the monarchy. But by hanging back in the shadows, and by failing, thus far, to meet the public's expectations in the matter of childbirth, Masako has contributed to a mood of increasing disenchantment with the royal family. NTV, one of the biggest networks, used to devote a half hour every weekend to a report on royal doings. Last month it cut the show to 15 minutes and moved it to 6 a.m. on Sunday. "You see, our job is to give our audience what it wants," a network spokesman says apologetically. A source close to the Imperial Household Agency, the hidebound bureaucracy that manages every aspect of royal life, says the palace is worried about "the total lack of interest in the imperial family by the younger generation."

Masako's disappearance from public view speaks volumes about the role of women in Japan at the threshold of the 21st century. Ever so gradually, women are beginning to compete with men as doctors, lawyers, diplomats and even business executives. But the changes are evolutionary, not revolutionary, and the tug of tradition remains far stronger than the inclinations of a princess. Japan is still a country in which women often speak in high-pitched tones to convey humility and servitude.

A diplomat's daughter who has lived overseas, Masako appears to be an adaptable woman, but that may explain why she has retreated into the background since her marriage. Friends say she was an achiever but rarely a maverick. Lillian Katz, who taught her English at Belmont High School in Massachusetts, recalls: "She always did the right thing." In the palace, that means knowing your place. Masako learned to alter her demeanor, to keep a step behind her husband, at least in public. As a result, she is acquiring a new image. "Many people think her true self was always kind of shy and gentle," says newspaper reporter Tetsuo Shiitani. "They believe the main figure is the crown prince and that Masako-sama is like a shadow who should accompany him everywhere."

But Masako hasn't traveled abroad since January 1995, when a trip to the Mideast was cut short by the Kobe earthquake. "It's a pity," says Toru Nakagawa, a former Japanese ambassador to the United Nations who first suggested Masako as a potential spouse for the crown prince. "We have a very talented princess, and she should play a more active role." Some friends say she seems comfortable in her new, secluded role. When Naoko Ueda visits the palace, servants bring tea and snacks, but they don't hover. "She has her privacy," says Ueda. "She can be herself."

Compared with the rambunctious British royals, Naruhito and Masako are downright dull, which can be both a blessing and a handicap. The Imperial Household Agency would like them to be even duller. Earlier this year the prince and princess gave an informal, off-the-record talk to members of the imperial press club. Masako revealed that she reads books by Kenzaburo Oe, the Japanese Nobel Prize winner. When that was leaked to a women's magazine, household officials went berserk. They were upset, it seems, because Oe is considered anti-imperial -- not suitable reading for a princess.

The birth of a son would increase public interest in the royal family and might put Masako back into the limelight. It isn't known whether the couple has sought medical help for their conception problem; most royal-watchers guess that they have not. Few Japanese ask whether the problem might be Naruhito's, not his wife's. Sexist Japanese usually blame the woman, and traditionalists don't want to believe that a blood member of the royal family cannot father a child. Last year a trashy magazine printed "a rumor" that the couple "may not be sleeping in the same bed." But by all accounts, Naruhito is a devoted and attentive husband. Having pursued Masako for six years, he may be quite willing to endure the ticking of her biological clock. If only his subjects were as patient.