When Masaka Owada marries Crown Prince Naruhito June 9, she gives up her career and private life to enter the rarified world of Japan's imperial household

HE was once seen as the most ineligible bachelor in Japan. She was a promising young diplomat who spent half her youth outside Japan and six years avoiding his affection for her.

But despite their pasts, Crown Prince Naruhito and Masako Owada will be wed on June 9 in a millennia-old ceremony and in a royal match reflecting Japan's troubled search for new roles for its emperor and for Japanese women.

In its simplest meaning, the long-awaited marriage is a highly orchestrated attempt by the powerful Imperial Household Agency (IHA) to ensure that Japan has a male heir to the Chrysanthemum Throne, the world's oldest unbroken dynasty.

But the event has triggered mixed emotions, raising questions:

Can Ms. Owada, who is worldly and outspoken, easily enter the cloistered life behind the imperial moat, obey the strict etiquette, and follow the ancient rituals of Japan's indigenous Shinto religion? Or will she, as a future empress, alter a tradition-bound institution that fewer and fewer Japanese hold in awe?

To the many young Japanese who are apathetic about the emperor "system" and who see it as an anachronism, June 9 will be just another official holiday, specially declared for the event.

And for many businesses beset by a recession, the event is a chance to cash in on an expected "Masako boom" with wedding-related sales. The Japanese media, too, plan day-long coverage of a ceremony that will be measured in minutes.

For one group of activists, who recently held a seminar on "What is there to celebrate about the crown prince's wedding?" the event is not politically correct. Feminist historian Yuko Suzuki, for instance, says the only role for a woman in the imperial family is to produce a successor. She says the root of discrimination in Japan lies in the 19th-century law that only men can be emperor.

The imperial family does hold unusual privilege in a society that otherwise sees itself as egalitarian. After World War II, the emperor was demoted from a "living god" to a symbol of the state under a new American-directed constitution. That began an evolution designed to help the institution keep pace with Japanese society by narrowing the gap between royalty and the people.

With Owada joining the imperial family as crown princess, that pace may quicken, as many wish it would. "We hope they will present a new `face' of Japan in an era when our nation plays an increasingly important role on the international stage," an editorial in the Nikkei daily business newspaper said.

A strong minority of Japanese, however, contend that the imperial family should stay remote as keepers of "innocent" spiritual purity, and not become so common. "Some people think that if you take the mystery out of the emperor, you reduce him as a symbol," says Keio University scholar Sumiko Iwao.

Today's Japanese feel starved for fulfillment, writes Osaka University professor Masakazu Yamazaki, and are "looking to the crown prince's wedding to provide an alternative means of satisfying this spiritual hunger."

The imperial family's mystique will not last much longer, he points out, and the royals must resolve the same contradiction between tradition and modern values that Japanese society is coping with.

The best clues so far to how Owada and Naruhito will change the institution together can be found in their unusual courtship.

They first met in 1986 when she was 23 and studying law at Tokyo University and he was 26, just starting his bride hunt. She was one of several young women invited to an autumn reception for Spain's Princess Elena in an obvious attempt at matchmaking. He claims he knew then that she was his choice. She, however, was pursuing a career. The crown prince told reporters: "Masako-san was always on my mind, and I asked the IHA frequently, `Can't it be Masako-san?'"

But she demurred, and the 1,100-person IHA, which closely guards and controls the emperor's family, was not high on her either. She did not meet their conditions for an empress. For one, she had a job. And she was a bit taller than the crown prince. And her maternal grandfather was slightly tainted because he had become president of Chisso Corporation which, before his tenure, had caused the death or injury of hundreds of people by polluting the southern Japanese bay of Minamata with toxic mercury.

And she has twin sisters, raising the possibility that she may give birth to twin boys. That would raise an unprecedented dilemma over which twin would be emperor. She also comes from a family of girls, raising doubts if she could produce a son.

The two did meet a few more times, but she soon left for studies at Oxford, and they did not see one another for five years. Then, with the crown prince more desperate, another visit was arranged last summer by a "go-between."

Her hesitation to consider Naruhito as a mate raised doubts about her ability to accept the strictures of imperial life. But on a date in October at the imperial duck-hunting field near Tokyo, he tried earnestly to persuade her. "I was risking my happiness," as he described it.

Later, in Tokyo, he would meet her by slipping away from his palace home to escape an eager media. He had to leave security guards behind to be undetected. By Dec. 12, she accepted, moved by his pledge to shield her from any troubles.

As he later described the pledge that apparently won her heart: "I'm sure you must be very worried about becoming a member of the imperial family, but I want you to know that for the rest of my life I will do everything within my power to protect you."

This statement, when spoken on Japanese television, had the same emotional impact in Japan as when a groom says "I do" in a Christian wedding. Many TV viewers were moved to tears.

His statement supports reports that his mother, Empress Michiko, experienced hardship at the hands of the IHA when she married then-Crown Prince Akihito in 1959. She was the first commoner to marry into the royal line. Before that, only aristocrats were chosen to be empress.

Michiko was able to make some changes in imperial ways, such as raising her children herself. Those changes could make life easier for Owada.

Still, Naruhito said that Owada "may experience anxieties and stress" but he would be ready to console her. Even their engagement required the approval of a 10-member council chaired by Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa.

"Masako certainly will have less freedom," says Dr. Iwao. "But then she is not going to sit at home. A line will be drawn on her speaking out on political issues. But otherwise, I'm waiting to see how she can change the imperial household. Will she be able to invite her friends over for lunch?"

In a joint press conference with Naruhito, Owada showed just how she might balance the sharp contrast between her past life as a free-spirited intellectual and her semi-cloistered future behind palace walls.

To the surprise of the TV audience, Owada sat next to the crown prince with her head down and her hands together. Her body language was much different than her previous image of a heads-up, smartly dressed career woman.

But then, after the crown prince stated that he wanted a family "blessed with peace and cheer," she went against imperial tradition of being reticent and deferential. She spoke her mind.

To the amazement of older Japanese, Owada said: "In principle I agree with the prince, but if I may be allowed to add a word of my own, I would say that I hope ours will be a warm family full of love that helps each other in difficult times."

In a nation whose older generation was taught not even to look at the emperor, such openness by a Japanese woman, one who received more than 13 years of her education outside Japan, reveals just how fast this once isolated nation has changed.

Many of her official duties as an empress will be to act as honorary head of social organizations, greet visiting dignitaries, recite poetry, and act out rituals that go back centuries. In fact, the imperial family's reason for existence is to conduct rituals on behalf of the Japanese race.

The couple seem to be the type of new Japanese who are uneasy with arranged marriages. Even though their early meetings were set up, they now seem to be in love. He describes her as such a "delightful person to talk to that I almost forget time." She said she was smitten by his "sincere, moving words."

Since she resigned from the foreign ministry in January, a

debate has continued about whether she would take a more challenging role as a kind of diplomat for Japan, or just become a bearer of imperial offspring.

Owada is often compared to Hillary Rodham Clinton as someone who, although in a subservient role, brings immense skill to a public position. But unlike in the United States, women in Japan are often denied careers. Of young Japanese women hired by big companies for career-track jobs, only 7 percent are women, according to the Japan Institute of Workers Evolution.

Many young women have decided not to marry, or if they do, they do not have more than one or two children. Japan's birthrate has plummeted to the third-lowest in the world.

"Career-oriented women are happy to see Masako find an attractive husband. The others could not relate to her," says Sumiko Iwao, author of the book "Japanese Women."

Will Owada set an example for motherhood or career?

"I have decided that my role now is to [marry] and make myself useful in my new mission as a member of the imperial family," she said. "It was my own decision, and I have no regrets."

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