Career woman bows to her new role: Marrying into Japan's imperial family will test all a diplomat's skills, writes Terry McCarthy from Tokyo

TODAY is the official announcement of the engagement of Crown Prince Naruhito to Masako Owada, and as part of an ancient tradition, the prince will send Ms Owada two sea bream, several bottles of sake and some bales of silk.

As Ms Owada puzzles over her engagement gifts, the prince will visit three shrines within the Imperial Palace to inform the gods that the successor to the Chrysanthemum Throne has found a bride.

To the outside world Ms Owada is an attractive and accomplished young woman who just happens to have been chosen by Japan's Crown Prince Naruhito as his future bride. But in Japan, Ms Owada, 29, is the supreme test case for an entire generation of women who are starting to challenge Japan's sexual politics. As she exchanges marital vows with the prince on 9 June and moves into the Akasaka palace, she will carry with her many of the hopes of young women in Japan today.

Until she said yes to the prince last December, Ms Owada had a life that most Japanese women could only dream of: multilingual and well-travelled, she occupied a responsible position in the Foreign Ministry, dressed expensively and drove her own car to work. For the legions of Japanese women consigned to making tea and running off photocopies for their male colleagues, the big question is: did she make a huge mistake by giving it all up to enter into the most conservative and repressive institution in Japan, the Imperial Household?

In a recent poll of 122 female students in a Tokyo university, 49 said they thought Ms Owada had ruined her career by agreeing to marry the prince. Some suspected that a concern for the 'national interest' outweighed her personal ambitions when she made the decision. In a separate poll, 74 per cent of women who replied said they would not like to marry into the imperial family because of the lack of privacy and burden of palace restrictions.

But others hope that Ms Owada's diplomatic skills will enable her to carve out a meaningful role for herself despite the strictures of palace life. Some even see her as a catalyst for change in an imperial institution that has fallen hopelessly behind the times. This optimistic view was strengthened by the crown prince, who said at the press conference to mark their official engagement: 'I will be by her side and do everything in my power to protect her from any possible hardships.'

Her new life - training for which involves her undergoing a 50-hour programme on religious ceremonies, the history of the emperor system, calligraphy and classical waka 31 syllable poems - will be a far cry from the work that she has been doing as a diplomat. Educated at Harvard and Oxford, she was working on the Second North America desk in the Foreign Ministry in Tokyo and handled such sensitive trade issues as US access to Japan's semiconductor market. She speaks English, French, German and Russian.

The Imperial Household Agency, which regulates everything that imperial family members do, had first thought Ms Owada would not be suitable as a future crown princess. The agency maintained a computerised databank on all the possible candidates, including detailed checks of their family background. Ms Owada's grandfather turned out to have been head of the company which caused the Minimata mercury poisoning scandal in southern Japan, which killed and deformed many local residents.

For the popular press the problems with Ms Owada were more basic. First, she is taller than the crown prince: during their first joint press conference she kept her head bowed so that she would not be seen to tower over him. Second, she has twin sisters, raising the odds on her giving birth to twins: the palace has no procedures for deciding on succession to the throne in the case of imperial twins. Third, there are no boys in her family: maybe she would not produce a male heir to the Chrysanthemum Throne at all?

But none of this stopped the press crawling all over her life. Every morning she emerges from her house to a crowd of reporters. There has been extensive coverage of Chocolate, the family dog, as well as investigative work on the price of her coats and her predilection for Spanish leather handbags. One television crew went into the local laundrette to find out from the staff what kind of clothes Ms Owada brought to be washed.

Behind the hype the question remains whether Ms Owada will be able to play a more independent and open role than her predecessors as crown princess and ultimately as empress. She skilfully deferred to the crown prince at their first public appearance together, pledging to 'bring his Imperial Highness happiness'. But then she added firmly: 'I would also like to make efforts so that I myself can have a good life, which I can be happy about when I look back.'

(Photograph omitted)

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