Fighting for a Dream to Come True – 16th Wedding Anniversary of Prince Naruhito and Princess Masako of Japan

  June 9, 2009 at 12:07 am by

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Crown Prince Naruhito of Japan met his future bride Masako Owada first on October 18, 1986. A party had been arranged to celebrate the visit of Princess Elena of Spain; but it was also a way of enabling the heir to the throne to meet a selection of forty eligible young women, among them Masako. The prince was immediately smitten: Masako, a charming, attractive and intelligent Harvard-graduate, had only recently passed the Foreign Ministry entrance exam (as one of only five per cent of those to pass the test that year). She seemed to incorporate everything that he had always wanted from his future partner.

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After the prince had in 1985 come back from his studies in Oxford, he had told a press conference: “My ideal partner should have the ability to boldly speak her mind. Another wish is that she should know a foreign language to a certain degree because we will often meet with foreigners.” The court journalists were a bit at a loss to imagine a Japanese woman matching this picture. But it was known that the prince had a penchant for American actress Brooke Shields whom he enthusiastically praised: “She says things in a clear, fearless way.” (Only to add, with a sad smile: “But, of course, I cannot marry a foreigner…”) Now, he finally seemed to have met a Japanese woman whom he was able to truly love and admire. Masako’s strong-willed nature was combined with a natural knack for diplomacy. “She has the wisdom to adapt herself to any environment,” a classmate said about her.

But Masako had just embarked on a professional career. She was working practically day and night and had so little spare time that she once jokingly told friends: “I am so busy I need a wife myself.” For the time being, marriage to anybody was not part of her life’s plan. So, before her imperial admirer could even propose, Masako’s parents informed inquiring palace officials that the Foreign Ministry was planning to post their daughter to Oxford to do a postgraduate degree in international relations, and that she was willing to accept that offer. The imperial bureaucrats were not displeased to hear it. With them, Masako had never been a favourite anyway. Too “foreign”, too strong-willed. And too competent.

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Masako went off to Oxford, the crown prince stayed behind in Tokyo where a bride-hunting committee of palace officials kept pushing brown envelopes into his hand that contained the names of potential crown-princess candidates. And the tabloid frenzy, that had begun when the prince was only 17 years, went on. Every Japanese girl who attended a concert in the imperial palace or who had been to tea with Naruhito’s younger sister Princess Sayako was in danger of finding herself mentioned the very next day in a newspaper, as Miss A, B or C, whose engagement to the crown prince was, in all probability, to be announced soon.

A whole pack of Japanese reporters persecuted Masako even though she was overseas. Masako, who had been hounded by the press already before in Tokyo, was not amused and tried to get rid of them. One of these paparazzi described her later (full of indignation and without even a shadow of self-consciousness): “She was like a Westerner; she said what she thought. When we tried to take her picture, she said, ‘What paper are you from? Show me your credentials! I refuse permission!’ Once she told someone he was a cockroach. That was an extraordinary way for a Japanese woman to behave.”

Prince Naruhito would probably have been highly amused, had he been informed of the incident. But he was not in need of a reminder anyway. His carefully arranged meetings with bride candidates never led to anything. At long last, the emperor’s attention was raised by these fruitless activities, and he inquired what was the problem. When he understood that his son had already made his choice, he insisted that palace official set their prejudices aside and that priority be given to his son’s affections.

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Further meetings of the prince with Masako, who had returned to Tokyo in the meantime, were arranged. But Masako hesitated. She did not want to give up her career for which she had fought so hard. And she was afraid that entering the imperial family would mean that she would have to pass her life in a gilded cage. However, in the end the prince won her over by confessing that he wanted her not only as a loving man, but also as the heir to the Japanese throne. He needed her help and her professional qualities to realize his vision of a monarchy that in these rapidly changing times would remain relevant to the people. Of course, he would do his very best to be a good emperor. But he could not do everything himself. He needed her at his side as the ideal empress for the 21st century. And he gave her a promise that afterwards became very famous: “I know that you must have all sorts of worries about entering the imperial family. I promise to protect you with all my power as long as I live.”

At the time of the wedding of Japan’s Crown Prince Naruhito to Miss Masako Owada on July 9, 1993, Yoshimi Ishikawa, author of several books on Japan, remarked that perhaps, in the end, the strength of Masako and Naruhito’s marriage would help them conquer all: “The prince loves her so much that if she wants change, he may help… Maybe we can create a new era of Japanese history.” The bright and telegenic bride became the heroine of legions of fans who hoped that this princess for a new age would modernize the sedate Imperial Household and serve as a role model for Japan’s women.

But, unfortunately, there were people who were hoping for exactly the opposite. They criticized Masako for the very behaviour that delighted her husband and nurtured the hopes of her Japanese fans: She walked in front of the prince, expressed her own opinions and even dared make jokes. On one occasion she was seated at a banquet between then-presidents Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin. She chatted to Clinton in fluent English and to Yeltsin in Russian. Western observers may have been impressed; but royal watchers knew that she was letting herself in for trouble. “The royal family are not ambassadors,” says a veteran member of the royal press corps. “that’s not their job. She doesn’t need to be able to speak English, she has interpreters for that. Her job is to smile.”

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Masako knew what was expected of her: “The question is one of finding a point of harmonious balance between a traditional model of a crown princess and my own personality.” But during the years and especially as that one thing that her fans as well as her adversaries expected from Masako - to produce an heir - was not forthcoming, it finally seemed that such a point of balance did not exist. “We all hoped she would use her talents, like English, to do something. But she’s stopped appearing in public and her face has become gloomy,” a Japanese homemaker told the LA Times in 1997. “Everyone is saying… she would have been happier staying a career diplomat.”

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In 2001, daughter Aiko was born. But as a girl, Aiko is not eligible to ascend the Japanese throne, and after her birth things did not get much better for the crown princess. Masako’s strength to brave the constant pressure was beginning to fail her. On a press conference ten years after her wedding, the princess expressed her fears of being “a hindrance” to her husband and of preventing him from “performing his duties wholeheartedly”. In December 2003, she finally suffered a physical and mental breakdown and has not recovered fully from her depression ever since.

Undoubtedly, Prince Naruhito had to go the full distance in order to keep the promise of protection he had given to his bride before their engagement. But he was as good as his word. He tenderly comforted her when she suffered a miscarriage in 1999. He tried to ease her worries of being “a hindrance” by telling her that he was delighted by her very presence, without her having to take any efforts. He asked her not to try too hard and to take good care of herself. And he has publicly supported and defended her on several occasions since his famous press conference in May 2004 when he accused unnamed persons of having negated his wife’s career and personality.

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Although the prince and princess have always been living under hard external pressure they appear to have succeeded in creating a very strong and happy bond as a couple. Shortly after she had suffered a miscarriage in her first pregnancy, Masako wrote a very tender waka poem for her husband: “Seven years led by you, talking with you, happy times.” And, in fact, both enjoy very much talking together as the princess told a press conference: “I am truly happy that I am able to talk to His Highness the Crown Prince on any matter at all and discuss any subject. After all, I think that the very act of dialogue, often and in many ways, puts us at ease.” According to the prince, besides talking to each other and putting oneself in the other person’s shoes, it makes part of the secret of a happy marriage “to frankly admit it when you think you have been mistaken”. The couple learn from each other: Naruhito taught his wife to enjoy contact with nature through mountaineering and hiking, and to love music. And Masako shared with him the qualities her diplomatic career had provided her with. The prince confessed once: “The first thing I learned when we were married was to read documents carefully. In those days, in repeated official duties, I tended to neglect looking at documents a great deal. But thanks to Masako’s attitude in such matters, I reformed myself, reading documents more thoroughly and noticing things.”

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When they finally were blessed with their child’s birth they saw it as just another opportunity to cooperate, as the prince said: “Masako and I have cooperated in a variety of ways so far and I intend for us to continue to cooperate in a variety of ways in the upbringing of our child. In bringing up your own child, you gain a sense of oneness with the child and also feel more togetherness as a couple.”

There is only one thing lacking for them to fully share: official duties. This is partly owing to Masako’s condition, but even more to the fact that the couple is still not given the opportunity to realize their vision of performing their official work in a truly effective and meaningful way. It is to be hoped, for the best interest of the Japanese people, that this will change some day and that Naruhito’s dream will come true: “I hope that the two of us can be involved in advancing mutual understanding between people of different countries and in environmental issues, both of which are important for promoting world peace, and in creating a society where children can grow up in good health, which is indispensable for seeking the happiness of the Japanese people and the rest of humanity.”

Watch an engagement video of the crown couple with pictures from their childhood.

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