Ben Hills

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.

Publishing Info

Pub date: Saturday 5 June 1993
Edition: Late
Section: News and Features
Sub section:
Page: 25
Wordcount: 2331
Caption: Prince Naruhito and his fiance, Masako Owada, on their engagement … wedding is expected to cost $30 milion.