On Wednesday morning, barring any last-minute mishap, Masako Owada, graduate of Harvard and Oxford, career diplomat and the very model of the modern Japanese woman will be driven across the forbidding moat that surrounds Tokyo’s imperial palace, and back more than a thousand years in time.
The woman who graduated magna cum laude with an econometric dissertation on the effect of oil prices on Japan’s economic cycle, will have to learn to converse in an archaic imperial language that is Latin to most modern Japanese; to master intricate ritual, like the angle of the bow she must give the in-laws every time she meets them (precisely 60 degrees); and to submit to shamanistic ceremonies like having her body rubbed with rice-bran to ensure her fertility.
For Princess Masako, Princess Diana’s isolation and unhappiness at the Buckingham Palace court will seem like a picnic. The wife of the heir to the chrysanthemum throne – and chosen mother of the next-emperor-but-one – will be a virtual prisoner of the Kunaicho, the all-powerful Imperial Household Agency, from the moment of her marriage to Crown Prince Naruhito.
Behind the stone ramparts of the palace – 20 hectares of woodlands, palaces, parks and shrines – the agency, with its staff of 1,100, will dictate her every move, decide who she may and may not meet, and script every word she says. And, unlike Princess Di, there is no way out – separation and divorce are forbidden to Japan’s royals.
She knows, of course, what she is getting into, as only the second commoner to marry into the world’s oldest inherited job – her new mother-in-law, the Empress Michiko, was the first, and it is no secret that she cracked under the strain in the early 1960’s and suffered a nervous breakdown.
That Masako Owada herself was unable to survive the tremendous presssure that was applied last year to force her to say yes to the love-lorn prince is a not hopeful sign. At least three of the other young women the agency steered in his direction in 10 years of an increasingly-frantic quest to find him a bride, hurriedly rushed off and married someone else to forestall him popping the question.
Owada, in fact, did not fit the protocol the agency had drawn up for the future Empress. She was regarded as “too American” (meaning she did not fit the pattern of submissiveness expected of women at the Japanese court) and ugly rumours were circulating of past affairs.
Owada has had an unusually international upbringing for a Japanese woman, and an unusually distinguished academic and professional record. The daughter of a career diplomat, Hisashi Owada, currently head of Japan’s Foreign Affairs Department, she spent time as a child in Moscow and New York, and studied at three of the world’s most famous universities – Oxford, Harvard, and Tokyo, cradle of most of the people who are destined to rule Japan Inc.
For the past two years, she has been an official in the prestigious and powerful North American division of the Foreign Affairs Department, commuting frequently to Washington and taking a high profile in international trade talks. She has written speeches for Japan’s former Prime Minister, Noboru Takeshita, and has translated for former US Secretary of State James Baker. As well as Japanese she speaks fluent English and French, and passable Russian, German and Spanish.
At the age of 29, Owada had told friends that she intended to place her career ahead of her marriage prospects – in Japan it is all but impossible for a woman to have both – and it was expected that she would be appointed to an overseas mission, and eventually an ambassadorship and a senior position in the ministry.
She was one of the best and the brightest of the new generation of women making their way in an overwhelmingly chauvinist society.
Instead, she now finds herself the central figure in a never-ending soap opera – for the past five months Japanese TV crews have enriched the owner of a car-park opposite the house in Meguro where she lives with her family by paying $3,000 a month for spots for a 24-hour stake-out. Her clothes have been the subject of detailed documentaries, her childhood snapshots have filled special editions of magazines. Even her pet terrier Chocolat cannot escape the attention.
Why did she buy into all this? It seems to be the combination of a prince who wouldn’t take no for an answer, officials who could not come up with a satisfactory alternative, and some heavy-handed pressure applied on her father through various Tokyo Establishment networks.
They first met in 1986 at a musical tea-party at the home of Prince Naruhito. Owada had been on a list which was eventually to number more than 100 young women selected by a special bride-hunting committee, chaired by the head of Kunaicho,. One by one they were being introduced to the prince in a process known as o-miai or “arranged meeting”.
The criteria for the Empress-to-be were strict. First, her family tree had to be “clean” for at least three generations (clean meaning no Korean blood or lower caste ancestry). She had to be in her early 20’s (Naruhito was 26 at the time), shorter than him (the Prince is 5ft 4in), to be able to speak at least one foreign language, to be a virgin, and not have had any bodily’disfigurement’ like an eye-tuck or pierced ears. Also ruled out were relatives of any politician, or anyone with money in property and stocks –obvious sources of potential scandal in post-boom Japan.
From all accounts, it was love at first sight for Naruhito.
Not so for Owada, who was unimpressed by the rather insipid mummy’s boy whose great passion is the breeding and dissection of guppy fish — he was breast-fed until the age of 11 months, and is said to be still over-dependent on the Empress. She went off to Oxford, and he remained behind in the palace, meeting and greeting the procession of reluctant virgins Kunaicho paraded through his parlour.
Naruhito himself had an overseas education — two years at Oxford where he studied medieval river traffic on the Thames.
But when Owada was free to go off skiing, he was watched over night and day by minders from Kunachio and Scotland Yard, and his most daring adventure is said to have been staying in a night-club until 2 am. He is widely believed to be still a virgin at the age of 33.
Around the middle of last year, Naruhito’s unwed status began to become an acute embarrassment. When his father dies (he is 59 now) he will become the 126th Emperor of Japan in a line stretching back into the myths of pre-history to the sun goddess Amaterasu Omikami. The agency began to fear that he could become the last emperor — descent is only through the male line, and only the oldest male can maintain the purity of the lineage. The Press was champing at the bit under a vow of silence imposed by the Newspaper Publishers’Association.
Further meetings were arranged with the reluctant Owada, the prince secreted behind curtains in the backs of unmarked vans speeding at night across the drawbridge of the palace to rendezvous in the homes of discreet go-betweens. He wooed her on the banks of the imperial duck-shooting lake in Ichikawa.
He deluged her with phone calls (Naruhito is the first Japanese royal to be allowed his own telephone) Still the answer was no — and the palace brought out its heavy artillery.
Although the emperor, under Japan’s American-drafted constitution, no longer has any legal authority, the palace still wields considerable influence behind the scenes. Owada’s father, a senior bureaucrat in one of Japan’s most powerful ministries, was reminded of his responsiblities. The Empress Michiko herself (according to one account) sneaked out of the palace and called on a tearful Owada to offer her ‘protection’ against the palace chamberlains.
And eventually, on December 19, Owada surrendered.’I shall do my best to be of service to Your Highness,’ were the words she is reported to have used. The media ignored the implications of the stilted submission, and (after being humiliatingly scooped by the Washington Post on their own story) have been doing their best to whip it into the royal romance of the 1990s.
If you thought the Charles and Di wedding went over the top for tacky commercialisation, stay away from Tokyo for the next few weeks. There are’Hiro’ and Masako dolls selling in the Ginza for $1500 a pop, a three-CD collection of Imperial favourites from Toshiba/EMI, there are pearls and handbags, coats ‘just like hers’, $66,000 gold medallions, cloths for cleaning glasses and even a royal wedding souvenir telephone card.
The NLI Research Institute estimated that — in products, services and tourism — the wedding could generate revenues of $44 billion, and add 0.8 per cent to Japan’s Gross National Product … although that seems just as fanciful as describing the dragooning of thoroughly-modern Masako into the feudal imperial court as a royal romance.
Certainly, her father will soon know all about the economic implications. When she moves into the 670-square-metre Akasaka palace where she will spend the rest of her life, Masako Owada will be followed by three or four pantechnicons crammed with her dowry, which, it has been decreed, shall be worth no less than $4 million. Kunaicho is subsidising the extravaganza –just as well, since one recent royal in-law committed suicide over the cost of continuously buying gifts for the household. But that has merely fuelled public concern over the cost of the wedding, which is now expected to come to nearly $30 million … on top of the $200 million it already takes to look after Japan’s two dozen royals.
Tokyo is already in the grip of a massive occupation by 30,000 police which will last until the end of the G7 summit in July.
The cost of patrolling the four-kilometre route of Wednesday’s motorcade –and of removing all the drink-dispensing machines, lest anyone throw cans at the royal couple — is $25 million alone.
The wedding has been seized on by a disparate collection of radicals –involved in causes ranging from opposition to extra runways at Narita airport to burakumin rights — who have threatened to disrupt proceedings. So far two fire-bombs have been detonated, one an attack on an official of the Imperial Household Agency.
But, barring a last-minute change of heart, the wedding will go ahead. Early Wednesday morning, her eight new hand-maidens will begin the two-hour task of swaddling this Harvard economics graduate in 12 layers of a most extraordinarily- elaborate ninth-century costume called a juni-hitoe –similar garments are for hire in the Ginza for $15,000 per day, plus $100 to remove each stain afterwards.
She will then be taken down a corridor to the kashiko dokoro, the most sacred place in Japan, a shinto shrine in the palace grounds which is the repository of the bronze Yatano mirror, said to have been made for the goddess Amaterasu. Here — hidden from public gaze, attended only by four vestal virgins, a priest and some other officials — Naruhito will read his own wedding vow, and the couple will sip sake from a goblet.
The public part of the wedding begins later with the ‘morning viewing’ at which Naruhito introduces his bride to his parents, the start of a three-day series of parties to which anyone who is anyone has been invited — 2700 people, a Who’s Who of corporate, official and creative Japan headed by the Prime Minister, Kiichi Miyazawa, and including such luminaries as Tatzura Toyoda (Toyota), Akio Morita (Sony), the author Hiroyuki Agawa, the kabuki actor Utaemon Nakamura. Only the Communist members of the Diet, who disapprove of the ‘Emperor system’ are boycotting the festivities.
Like everything else, the parties are full dress and ultra formal. Woe betide anyone who actually eats the food put in front of him — you are supposed to take it home, in the little box provided. Imperial Household officials are still outraged over the behaviour of the sumo wrestler Chiyonofuji, who took a bite of a fried sea bream at the wedding of Naruhito’s younger brother two years ago. No sumo wrestlers have been invited this time.
There will be no way of avoiding the festivities, which are expected to draw TV audiences of more than 50 million. NTV is devoting 14 hours to its ‘A New Princess is Born’ special, starting at 6 am. Fuji TV has signed the US actress Brooke Shields (a favourite of the prince) as a commentator. Asahi TV will use computer graphics to show what goes on inside the shrine. Two hundred TV cameras will line the route of the procession.
As for the honeymoon, a spokesman for the agency told the Herald/Age that the couple would visit sites of historical significance at the old imperial capital of Nara, and at the great Ise shrine. It is at Ise that Owada will be smeared with bran as part of a fertility rite. Bungei Shunju magazine cringed when this was reported in an overseas newspaper: “(We will be seen as) a high-tech nation with barbaric customs.” Then the palace gates will swing shut behind her. The next time she will be in the public eye is when she dutifully produces a son and heir.
Pub date: Saturday 5 June 1993
Section: News and Features
Caption: Prince Naruhito and his fiance, Masako Owada, on their engagement … wedding is expected to cost $30 milion.