* When Crown Prince Naruhito, heir to Japan's ancient Chrysanthemum Throne, first proposed to Masako Owada in May, the nation's most eligible bachelor got a surprising reply.

Ms. Owada, no traditionally subservient Japanese female, wanted time to think.

Repeated proposals later, she finally said yes.

On Jan. 19, the engagement became official with the unanimous approval of the 10-member Imperial Council, and the prince and his betrothed met the media for their first news conference - seated a decorous arm's length apart.

"I had a very strong and good first impression of her," said the 32-year-old prince. "She is modest but she has her own opinions and she is intelligent. And we had many topics in common and she is fun to talk with."

Owada said she admired the prince for being patient, courageous, considerate - and persistent.

"He said that he will do his utmost to protect me for his entire life," she said. "So I felt I wanted to make him happy, if it was something I could do." The 20-minute news conference was carried live by all Japanese networks.

The Imperial Council's approval, although legally required, is really a mere formality. The council includes Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa and other top figures from Japan's political and judicial realm.

The government has yet to set the date, but Japanese media predict a May or early June wedding. The romance has given the Japanese something to look forward to amid the country's worst recession in more than a decade.

Naruhito, the eldest son of Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko, told reporters he personally proposed Oct. 3 after failing to get a reply when a third party proposed for him in May. Owada accepted Dec. 12. The two had met in 1986 but their courtship was delayed by Owada's posting as a diplomatic attache in England.

Owada, a Foreign Ministry trade specialist, said during the news conference that it was difficult to give up her career.

"It would be a lie to say I feel no sadness about leaving the Foreign Ministry," she said. "But ... after I truly thought over many things, I felt that my role now was to accept the proposal from the prince and to make myself useful in my new life in the imperial household."

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