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)

Ian Thorpe had Rio 2016 in his sights
world cup 2014A history of the third-place play-offs
Tommy Ramone performing at The Old Waldorf Nightclub in 1978 in San Francisco, California.
peopleDrummer Tommy was last surviving member of seminal band
Life and Style
Swimsuit, £245, by Agent Provocateur

Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Life and Style
Several male celebrities have confessed to being on a diet, including, from left to right, Hugh Grant, Benedict Cumberbatch and Ryan Reynolds
life...and the weight loss industry is rubbing its hands in glee
The Mexico chief finally lets rip as his emotions get the better of him
world cup 2014
Spectators photograph the Tour de France riders as they make their way through the Yorkshire countryside
voicesHoward Jacobson: Line the streets for a cycling race? You might just as well watch a swarm of wasps
Life and Style
lifeHere's one answer to an inquisitive Reddit user's question
peopleDave Legeno, the actor who played werewolf Fenrir Greyback in the Harry Potter films, has died
Arts and Entertainment
'Eminem's recovery from substance abuse has made him a more potent performer, with physical charisma and energy he never had before'
arts + entsReview: Wembley Stadium ***
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Information Security Manager (ISO 27001, Accreditation, ITIL)

£70000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Information Security Manager (ISO 27001, A...

C# Developer (HTML5, JavaScript, ASP.NET, Mathematics, Entity)

£30000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Developer (...

C# Integration Developer (.NET, Tibco EMS, SQL 2008/2012, XML)

£60000 - £80000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Integration...

Biztalk - outstanding opportunity

£75000 - £85000 per annum + ex bens: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited: Biztalk Te...

Day In a Page

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

Why did we stop eating whelks?

Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice