In a private wing of the Togu Palace in central Tokyo, Japan's next Empress lives unseen and little spoken of. Princess Masako, a beautiful, ambitious commoner, arrived here 24 years ago, wearing her wedding kimono, and has rarely left since. To observers of the world's oldest monarchy, the strange, lost life of Masako Owada is both a personal tragedy and an indictment of the royal family's ancient ways of doing things.
Tracing its line back almost 2500 years, the Japanese Imperial House stands as a symbol of permanence and serenity, but its current mood is one of crisis. Earlier this year, in a rare television address, Emperor Akihito, 83, indicated that he will soon abdicate – a move that will bring his eldest son, Crown Prince Naruhito, 57, to the throne.
When that happens, an unavoidable spotlight will fall on Masako, the once-vivacious wife who has been likened to "a broken butterfly".
When Naruhito married Masako in 1993, she was hailed as Japan's Princess Diana. "Masako-Mania" swept the country, reflecting a sense that – revered as it was – the monarchy was ripe for change.
Masako had lived in the United States and Britain, she spoke several languages, and promised to bring a new verve and energy to the Court. Women in particular identified with the princess, and applauded when – in what sounded like a declaration of intent – she announced: "My task is to find a healthy balance between the role of a crown princess and my own personality."
It was clear what Masako meant. This royal bride did not intend to live by the old, patriarchal rules – keeping her eyes lowered and speaking prepared lines in a courtly whisper. Highly-educated and set on a career in the foreign service, she had turned down Naruhito's first proposal, before succumbing under pressure from her family.
There seems little doubt that Masako did, indeed, attempt to bring fresh ideas to the court. What she had not reckoned with was the ferocity with which the traditionalists would fight their turf.
Today she cuts a sorry, mysterious figure, high in status, but ignored and looked down upon by the royal establishment. The country's deferential media barely mentions her, and inquiries into almost any aspect of her life are firmly rebuffed by courtiers.
Even her husband has been unable to help her. For while the royal family may serve as figureheads, every significant aspect of their lives is controlled by the powerful Imperial Household Agency (IHA), a 1000-strong secretariat that is viscerally hostile to change.
One of the IHA's preoccupations has been – to put it bluntly – keeping women in their place. Only males can ascend to the semi-mystical Chrysanthemum Throne, and the lives of royal wives and daughters are wreathed in layers of antiquated protocol that dictate everything from how they must address their husbands to how often they should change their outfits (three times daily!).
While opinion polls show that a large majority of Japanese favour liberalising these rules – including allowing women to reign – the IHA remains implacably opposed. The agency's big problem, however, is that the royal family is running out of boys. And that has been a key factor in Masako's plight.
When she and Naruhito were married, no male baby had been born into the line of succession for 25 years.
"There was a phenomenal amount of expectation on her," says Hinota Matsuda, a London-based journalist and publisher.
"I don't just mean the froth in the newspapers, but real pressure from within the establishment, which made it clear that fixing this problem was her job."
The couple's wedding was greeted with wild enthusiasm and a sense that a monarchy able to trace its direct ancestors back for an astounding 126 generations was about to enter a new era.
There was good reason for all the excitement. Masako was by some way the cleverest and most accomplished woman ever to have married into the Imperial family. The daughter of a high-flying diplomat, she had attended kindergarten in Moscow and high school in the United States.
After graduating from Harvard University she returned to Japan, landed a job in the foreign ministry and later took a post-graduate degree at Oxford, where a contemporary remembers: "She was quite an enchanting mix – pretty much Western outwardly, with an American accent, but with a kind of Oriental serenity."
Naruhito had first set eyes on his future bride at a tennis tournament in 1982. As ever, the Crown Prince was closely guarded by aides, but he managed to speak briefly to the girl who had caught his eye, and he later asked his staff to find out who she was.
What he heard was not encouraging. Masako was not only a commoner, but the daughter of a salaried government employee. In other words, lacking the exacting pedigree the royal family would demand. And then there was the potential problem of the modern ideas about rank and privilege she was liable to have picked up while living abroad.
For his part, Naruhito, while a decent, conscientious young man, was hardly in the tradition of the great seducers. He was slight of build, socially awkward and, despite having studied at Oxford himself, was steeped in the kind of insular attitudes that prevail at Court. He had passed his 25th birthday having – so far as anyone knew – never had a serious girlfriend.
Yet Naruhito persisted. The couple met again at a tea party in the grounds of the Akasaka Palace, the government's guesthouse for foreign dignitaries, and a number of discreet meetings followed, several of them at the British Embassy, under the auspices of the Anglo-Japanese Friendship Society. Still, the romance developed slowly.
The Prince was eager, Masako hesitant, the courtiers flatly opposed.
Supposedly, Naruhito told his family that if he couldn't marry Masako he wouldn't marry anyone, but when he finally proposed, she turned him down. It wasn't, she apparently explained, that she didn't care for him; but she wondered whether she would be suitable for the demands of royal life.
In the end it was Masako's father Hisashi Owada, who persuaded her to accept. They were married in a traditional ceremony on June 9, 1993.
On the morning of the wedding, Masako was bathed in sacred water and dressed in a 12-layer, 13-kilogram wedding kimono. Yaruhito wore the 11th-century robes of a Japanese warrior prince.
In keeping with Shinto practice, there was no music and no exchange of rings, only a simple recitation of vows and prayers to revered ancestors. The bride's parents – unable to attend a ceremony with those of higher rank – were made to watch the proceedings on television.
And then the excitement took on a new dimension. When would the newlyweds produce that much-needed male heir to secure the succession? The first six years went by with no births, and during this time Masako maintained the modest semblance of a normal life – occasionally going to the theatre, a fashion show or a sports event.
For these "distractions and frivolities" she was furiously criticised inside and outside the royal circle. In 1999, her aides allowed it to be known that she had suffered a miscarriage. Two years later, she finally gave birth. To a girl. Since then, nothing.
To appease her critics, she gave up virtually all the activities she enjoyed – tennis, skiing, hiking, eventually retreating to a life lived almost entirely indoors.
The picture that emerges of the princess today is of a woman crushed by the pressure to conform. According to Australian journalist Ben Hills, author of a book on Masako, she cannot leave the royal apartments without permission, has no money, credit cards or even a telephone of her own, and is constantly watched over by courtiers.
There are regular rumours about her mental and physical health, and a sense of impending panic about how she will cope with the role of Empress.
"Her entire existence has been negated," says Hills. "She is a prisoner in a gilded cage."
The one reliable ally in her troubled life is Naruhito, who has publicly – and daringly – rebuked the IHA for its treatment of his wife. Clearly pointing at the ultra-conservatives who never wanted her in the royal family in the first place, he claims Masako has been left depressed, frail and "greatly distressed" by the demands heaped upon her.
While the Japanese media shy away from touching on royal sensitivities, there seems little doubt that much of the public sympathises with Masako, and admires her husband's steadfastness.
"A long time ago," says Hinota, "when she was a young bride-to-be, she spoke of her worries about joining the royal family, but said Naruhito had promised always to protect her, and I think most people would agree he has done his best."
Indeed, as Japan contemplates a change at the top of the royal order, Naruhito's position looks unexpectedly strong. No longer the shy, young man, the Crown Prince has matured into a surprisingly tough operator who speaks of wanting a "fresh breeze" to blow through the monarchy.
Unlike his IHA-compliant father, Naruhito has studied and been impressed by the revived popularity of Europe's monarchies, seeing it as evidence that royal houses must evolve, and stay close to their subjects.
The institution Naruhito inherits has hardly changed from the medieval Shogun era. Especially in its attitudes to women – their purpose remains to raise heirs and offer occasional decorative reminders of their existence on special occasions. So little information is released about them that when Empress Nagako, widow of the late Hirohito, died aged 97 in 2000, millions of Japanese were unaware that she had still been alive.
Although Japan has had several ruling Empresses in the past, all were essentially regents, tasked only with keeping the throne warm for the next male occupant. "They were either widowed or unwed," says Hidehiko Kasahara, professor of Constitutional Law at Keio University, "and the throne did not pass to their children, but reverted, as soon as possible, to the male line. The ideal of male supremacy has been absolutely fundamental."
Naruhito's own mother, the 82-year-old Empress Michiko, also a commoner, spoke movingly some years ago about the pain and emptiness of her own life, shut off from the things – particularly the worlds of art and literature – she loved as a young woman.
"I experienced great difficulties adapting," she said. "There were times when I longed to wrap myself in invisibility, to walk around unknown to anyone, but almost every day has been a challenge."
Not all the omens are bad for Masako. A bulletin from her doctors some months ago suggested that her condition is slowly improving, and her list of public engagements – while tiny – is growing. "I am greatly encouraged by people smiling and welcoming me," she said in the statement on her 53rd birthday.
She is exceptionally close to her daughter, Princess Aiko, 15, who has also suffered anxiety problems – allegedly after being bullied at school – and is now partly educated at the palace under Masako's supervision.
The burden of her supposed "failure" to produce a male heir was partly lifted by the birth of a baby boy, Hisahito, now 10, to the Emperor's youngest son, Prince Akishino and his wife, Kiko, ensuring the succession. The broader prospects for the royal family are less promising.
The number of senior royals is shrinking, and a cash crisis has forced severe economies on the household. Akihito's proposed abdication has enraged the nation's militant-royalists who see it as virtual treachery. Even the IHA is alarmed, with one senior official calling for "a national debate" on the monarchy's future.
If Masako has achieved anything in her unhappy time as a princess it is helping to bring all this to a head. One day, the Broken Butterfly may spread her wings again and, however her story ends, she is likely to have changed the Japanese monarchy for ever. Which, after all, is what she wanted in the beginning.
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