'Depressed' Crown Princess comes out to play

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Japan's Princess Masako appears to be slowly edging back into public life after months of seclusion and an ongoing battle to regain her mental health.

Japan's Princess Masako appears to be slowly edging back into public life after months of seclusion and an ongoing battle to regain her mental health.

But the Japanese press has been warned again by imperial handlers that the princess's fragile recovery from a nervous disorder could be jeopardised by "excessive interest" in her condition.

Official pictures released yesterday showed the tanned and healthy-looking princess playing and dancing inside the Crown Prince's palace with Aiko, her two-year-old child. A press conference hosted by Hideki Hayashida, Grand Master of the Crown Prince's household, tried to dispel rumours about the health of the princess, 40, who was diagnosed in July with an "adjustment disorder", a stress-induced condition normally associated with student returnees struggling to readjust to life in Japan.

Masako retired temporarily from public duties in December last year and dropped almost completely out of sight for more than six months, fuelling speculation that she had suffered a nervous breakdown and wanted out of her marriage to Crown Princes Naruhito. Some of the weekly press has blamed the decline in the princess's health on the clamour for an imperial infant boy in the imperial household, which is facing a succession crisis unless it can produce a male heir.

Mr Hayashida said: "The condition of the princess is improving thanks to medical treatment and psychotherapy. She is playing tennis and accompanying her husband on some official duties. But she worries that her every move is being scrutinised. She is very aware of how her behaviour perceived."

As he spoke, the princess was on her way with her husband and their daughter by Shinkansen (Bullet Train) to an imperial retreat in Nasu in Tochigi Prefecture, another sign that life in the cloistered imperial household may be on the mend. Press interest in the mother of the possible heir to the Chrysanthemum Throne intensified after she briefly emerged from behind the imperial curtain earlier this month, on her way from the Crown Prince's palace to visit Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko.

Television pictures showed the smiling Masako waving from a limousine, looking considerably better than the wan and unhappy woman who stared back at cameras before her retreat behind the imperial moat last year. The princess had earlier skipped the royal wedding of Brunei's Crown Prince, Al-Muhtadee Billah Bolkiah, forcing her husband to go alone.

"The doctors have decided it would put too great a burden on [the Crown Princess]," said Mr Hayashida at the time.

Mr Hayashida again pleaded with the press yesterday to exercise "self-restraint" in their coverage of the princess, claiming he was acting on her request. "The princess is at an extremely important point in her treatment and her doctors believe she may suffer a relapse if she is forced to remember past traumas," he said, possibly a reference to Masako's stress-induced miscarriage in 1999, blamed on the enormous media interest in the future heir. Television coverage of the pictures was muted, possibly a sign that the press have heeded Mr Hayashida's words.

With little to distract from difficulties at home and abroad and the fate of the world's oldest imperial institution still undecided, the truce is unlikely to last for long.