Advertisement
Share

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.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

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.

Advertisement

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?

Advertisement

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.

Advertisement

“Her fashion and attitude have become passive and old-fashioned,” said Fukushima, sighing. “She’s surrendered. From now, her biggest job will be to bear a boy.”

*

But Kase, the nationalist who still regards the emperor as a demigod, is pleased.

“She’s been to correction camp,” he says.

Advertisement

Kase hopes Owada will be “respectful of the role” of the empress as he views it--namely, simply to assist her husband when needed, stay out of the public view as much as possible and “shun wearing gaudy Western fashions.”

Other conservatives fear that Owada’s current docility merely masks a strong will. They recall that Owada once jabbed her finger furiously at a relentless paparazzi, demanded his business card and the name of his company and, reportedly, denounced him as “a worm.”

“That kind of strong woman who has taken on American rationality and women’s rights consciousness is absolutely not going to hit it off with the (royal) household staff,” one conservative said.

Keeping Opinions to Herself

Advertisement

What Owada herself thinks of the contradictory expectations and all the speculation about her is not known. She has maintained a public silence on these issues, as have members of the Royal Family.

But the princess-to-be is nothing if not adaptable. She has spent a lifetime adjusting to new and difficult situations, while maintaining a strong sense of self and indefatigable confidence. Also, friends and associates say, she has always aimed for the highest, pursued the biggest challenges--and unerringly succeeded.

Born Dec. 9, 1963, in Tokyo, the eldest of three daughters, Owada moved to New York at age 3 when her father was sent to the United Nations. After that, the family moved to the Soviet Union.

She returned to Tokyo at age 7, where she reportedly suffered some bullying, a common experience at the time for children pegged as “different” because they had been schooled overseas. She was enrolled in a Roman Catholic school in Tokyo, Denenchofu Futaba, a girls-only institution so strict that students were ordered to wear black tights to cover their skin when boys visited for the school festival.

Advertisement

There, Owada captained the softball team, studied English and French and played an occasional prank.

In 10th grade, she returned to the United States when her father became a visiting professor at Harvard in 1979 and enrolled in high school in Belmont, Mass.

She was a fiend for studying. Even then, recalls Lillian Katz, who taught an English-as-a-second-language course, she displayed uncommon drive, ambition and determination. When she was put in a lower class, she asked to be moved up. Against Katz’s better judgment, Owada took on German even though her English was still limited. She pursued honors math and physics and got out of the second-language class in one year, although many foreign students stay in all three years.

Although Owada was unusually mature and always cheerful, she was socially naive, say friends from those days. Julie Yeh, one of her best friends in high school and a foreign student from Taiwan via Libya, said she and Owada were shocked at the drug use and dating practices in American high schools. They attended the senior party together, blinked twice at couples kissing in the dark and, because they didn’t know how to dance, ended up watching movies until dawn in the school auditorium.

Advertisement

“We were pretty nerdy,” said Yeh, a law school graduate who lives in Southern California.

Owada moved on to Harvard in 1981, where she majored in economics, graduated magna cum laude and wrote a thesis titled “External Adjustments to Import Price Shocks: Oil in Japanese Trade.” Although her father wanted her to remain in the United States, Owada decided to return to Japan after graduation because, she told friends, she was afraid of becoming rootless.

“I never forget I’m Japanese,” she told Jun Tsusaka, a Harvard classmate now at a securities firm in Tokyo. Lillian Katz received a postcard from Owada, describing how ecstatic she was to be back in her own country.

By that time, Owada’s ambitions were clear.

Advertisement

“Japanese diplomacy is backward, and we have to get over the communication gap with the United States,” she told Tsusaka.

Owada studied law at Tokyo University, passed the Foreign Ministry exam in 1987, spent the next two years at Oxford University in England and exchanged her American for the Queen’s English. She told a friend she might never marry.

Back in Tokyo at the Foreign Ministry’s North American division, she did junior officer staff work interpreting for the likes of then-Secretary of State James A. Baker III, drafting speeches for then-Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita and preparing papers for U.S.-Japan negotiations over semiconductors, foreign lawyers and other nagging trade issues.

U.S. negotiators say Owada was sharp, thorough and gracious, never voiced her own opinions and, in trade meetings, merely took notes.

Advertisement

Ever the yeoman, she would work until 5 a.m. and hold her own with the boys, earning a reputation as “The Woman Who Doesn’t Need Sleep.” But, one associate added, “she didn’t mind serving tea” and plastered her battered gray desk with pictures of kittens, puppies and her pet Yorkshire terrier, Chokora (Chocolate). In her free time, she tried out for a women’s wrestling team, traveled alone to Hawaii and took cooking lessons at a Ginza restaurant.

Spirit Attracted Prince

To conservatives such as Kase, Owada’s background is totally at odds with his ideal princess: a delicate flower suited to kimonos rather than Western clothes, schooled in Japanese history rather than international affairs, unable to speak English and trained to answer questions about her opinion with the response, “It’s just as His Highness believes.”

But Prince Naruhito liked a show of spirit, and he is said to have been smitten from the first time he met her at a reception for Princess Elena of Spain in 1986.

Advertisement

Thanks to his parents, who were determined to give him as normal a childhood as possible, he represented a startlingly new breed of royal. He was breast-fed and reared by his own mother and went to school with commoners, who called him “Den-Den,” a nickname derived from “Denka,” which means “His Highness.” He was allowed to climb mountains, choose his college major--history--and study overseas--all privileges his father was denied.

He also developed a taste for women with opinions after studying at Oxford. Royal watchers note that several times he has praised British women for their intelligence, and when it came time to choose a bride, he declared that he wanted a worldly woman with her own point of view.

*

After the 1986 meeting, Owada joined the list of more than 100 “princess candidates” but soon made it clear that she wanted off. She had heard her background was being investigated by imperial bureaucrats; she was hounded by paparazzi. As other candidates hastily married to take themselves out of contention, Owada signaled her disinterest at least twice--once on television--and officially turned the prince down last year.

Advertisement

She told friends the prince was pleasant enough, but she shuddered at losing her freedom. No doubt she was also worried about the bullying that Empress Michiko was widely reported to have suffered as the first commoner to marry into the Royal Family.

(Other media, both Japanese and American, have reported she also had a boyfriend in the Foreign Ministry.)

But Naruhito was now 33, and under severe pressure to find a bride. He reportedly began plying Owada with phone calls last year.

Everyone from one of Owada’s former teachers at the Catholic school to her father to Empress Michiko reportedly began exerting subtle but clear pressure. The prince and Hisashi Owada both have denied this.

Advertisement

On Dec. 12, Owada changed her mind and consented. Some people say she bowed to national duty. Others say she was persuaded when the prince and, reportedly, the empress gave explicit guarantees that she would be protected from the bullying and tight rein of the imperial bureaucrats.

Culture Shock Inevitable

In moving from Japan’s most outward-looking institution, the Foreign Ministry, to its most insular, the imperial household, Owada will undoubtedly suffer a significant culture shock. She will no longer be able to eat her favorite foods at will--curry rice, grilled beef, fried potato croquettes. Her clothes will be chosen for her and coordinated with Empress Michiko’s. She will not be able to visit her family freely, much less other friends.

Her public appearances will be mainly decided by the imperial bureaucrats. And if even if the marriage doesn’t take, she will never be able to get a divorce.

Advertisement

It all amounts to a forbidding challenge. But, for Owada, what else is new?

“Masako never took the easy way out,” recalls Katz, her former teacher. “She always also took the challenging way--and always did well.”

Megumi Shimizu, a researcher in The Times’ Tokyo Bureau, contributed to this report.


Advertisement