'Ferrari Princess' takes on old Japan: The Crown Prince marries today in a carefully prepared aura of mystery, Terry McCarthy writes from Tokyo

WHEN Crown Prince Naruhito of Japan marries the former diplomat Masako Owada this morning inside Tokyo's Imperial Palace, only one person will be allowed to watch - a virgin priestess from the traditional Shinto religion. But when the newly married couple emerge after the ceremony for the parade across Tokyo to their new residence, most of Japan will be watching, on television or in person, for a glimpse of the spirited young woman who, as Crown Princess, will become a bell-wether of the struggle to make Japan a more open and internationalised society.

The contrast with the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer could not be more striking: there will be none of the television cameras and microphones to pick up the taking of vows and beam them across the nation. In today's ceremony, not even the 800 wedding guests will be close to the couple when they make their vows in the kashiko dokoro, or awesome place, a shrine dedicated to Japan's most revered deity, the Sun Goddess.

The air of mystery that surrounds the wedding, and shrouds the workings of the Imperial Palace, is deliberately cultivated to enhance the authority of the emperor-system as the spiritual centre of Japan in an otherwise secular and materialist age. And it keeps the tabloids at bay.

After rising early and being driven to the palace, Ms Owada, 29, will have water poured over her body by an attendant as a ritual purification before she dons her wedding robes. There will be 12 layers of these, weighing some 30lb, with the outermost coloured green with a pattern of white gardenias. The Crown Prince, 33, will wear a silk robe of bright orange, which symbolises the rising sun.

When they enter the 'awesome place', in the company of the virgin priestess, the couple will pray to the Sun Goddess, wave sacred branches, and read the marriage proclamation. They then drink special sake, and with the first sip they are officially married. Such ritual is a universe away from the world of Japanese diplomacy, where Ms Owada had been working before becoming engaged to the Crown Prince last December. Educated at Harvard and Oxford, Ms Owada was one of the few women on a fast-track career in the Japanese Foreign Ministry, and was working on highly sensitive and complex trade issues between Japan and the US.

Identified by one Japanese magazine as one of a generation of 'Ferrari women', since she started working just as new anti-discrimination laws prompted many women to attempt serious careers in Japan, Ms Owada seemed to have achieved an enviable position. Feminists in particular have criticised her for 'selling out' to the most conservative institution in Japan, which they say will crush her like it crushed her predecessor, the current Empress Michiko, who came close to a nervous breakdown during her first years in the palace.

But others hope Ms Owada will gradually change the Imperial Household into a more welcoming symbol of Japan to the outside world. 'She has a gentle, diplomatic, discreet way of behaving,' said David Rosewarne, an academic who tutored her in Tokyo in 1986 on British politics and customs before she went to Oxford. 'This helped her to re-adapt to Japan as a returnee (from her years overseas), and these skills she will need with some of the more crusty officials of the Imperial Household Agency.'

The Emperor, according to the constitution, is not head of the Japanese state, but merely the symbol of the state, and as such has little power. Apart from his arcane duties as the High Priest of the Shinto religion, which involve the symbolic planting and harvesting of rice, the main demands of his job - accompanied by his spouse - are receiving foreign dignitaries and making overseas trips.

It is in this field that Ms Owada, who speaks five languages and is well travelled, can hope to contribute to a new-look Japan. 'It is often said that Japan has no face,' said Hisayo Yasuda, a lawyer in Tokyo who fought a similar career struggle as Ms Owada. 'So I am happy that a person like Masako, who has an impressive 'face' will become princess. She will give a good impression of Japan to the world.'

But whatever Ms Owada's skills, she will be faced with 1,000 people who work in the palace, and all the duties she will perform with her husband when meeting outsiders will be carefully controlled by the government and civil servants. Just as reform-minded bureaucrats chose to use the young Emperor Meiji as a symbol of their campaign to open up and modernise Japan 130 years ago, so too Ms Owada's fate will ultimately be decided by the network of people who run Japan, and their willingness, or not, to move away from the traditional secretiveness of the 'awesome place' and mistrust of outsiders to a more open, confident relationship with the rest of the world.

(Photograph omitted)

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