Japan's own royals outshone by the pastel Princess

The Princess of Wales' visit to Tokyo sounds like the ideal cue for a sermon on the relative health of the British and Japanese monarchies.

The pathos of a British princess, now separated by the most sordid slew of scandal from the future king, returning to a land where adoring crowds greeted her and Prince Charles in 1986 soon after their fairytale wedding, should swell the pride that the Japanese feel for the dignity of their own Imperial Family. One imagined that the Japanese would now treat the Princess of Wales with a mixture of pity and disdain.

Not so. The Princess's surprisingly warm reception in Tokyo seems to underline the failings of Japan's royal brood, especially those of Crown Princess Masako.

Granted, there were only about 1,000, mostly female, well-wishers lined to watch the Princess visit the Commonwealth Cemetery and the Kitamachi Day Care Centre for the aged, against 100,000 in Tokyo during the feverish tour of 1986. But that is still remarkable for a "private" visit on behalf of the Red Cross.

Japanese television this week aired gushing profiles of the Princess, while her choice of clothes - "a new preference for pastel shades" - has been dissected on afternoon chat shows. The sensation-starved Japanese tabloids, relieved at a change from earthquake doom and gloom, have unleashed their paparazzi to jostle the British press pack in hounding the Princess's every movement.

At a cocktail party at the British embassy there was the familiar spectacle of a glamour-struck circle of London journalists hanging on the Princess's every word, while dazed Japanese hesitated to approach. "She's just so beautiful," exclaimed an enraptured Japanese fashion writer. "We rarely see her these days," she added. "Such a pity."

Crown Princess Masako has been much busier recently than her reclusive opposite number from Britain. Last year, she attended 102 functions, met 580 people on official visits and spoke to many of the 13,700 volunteers who offered to clean the palace gardens in Tokyo.

On average she has appeared in public once a week since her wedding to Crown Prince Naruhito in the summer of 1993. The Crown Princess's image problem is one the Princess of Wales could envy: increasingly, the public hardly notices her.

The strong personality and sharp intellect that electrified Japan when the engagement was announced two years ago have been shackled and the persona that Crown Princess Masako projects is that of the traditional, demure, Japanese princess, offering unobtrusive support to her husband and muttering anodyne civilities when required. Her allure has been dimmed by the exchange of a yuppie wardrobe from her years in the Japanese Foreign Ministry for the conservative attire deemed appropriate to her position.

Once an ambitious diplomat, said to be fluent in English, French, German and Russian and with a degree from Harvard, her only talent of any consequence now is to reproduce.

Within six months of her wedding, rumours that a baby was on its way dominated the tabloids. When the Crown Princess had a "cold", the media took that as palace-speak for pregnancy but, during their only press conference, the Imperial couple denied the rumour. Since then, pressure to produce a male heir has become intense after the second delivery of Princess Kiko, wife of the Emperor's second son, Prince Akishino.

The brushfire excitement at the time of their marriage now appears woefully misplaced and deeply embarrassing. The then head of the Japanese Chamber of Commerce and Industry called it "the greatest news of the century". The consensus of Japanese and foreign commentators was that Crown Princess Masako would quietly revolutionise the Imperial Household and its deeply conservative staff of 1,200 bureaucrats.

Yohei Kono, the Japanese Foreign Minister, promised that the Crown Princess would have ample opportunity to use her diplomat skills. The reluctance of many Japanese women to become Crown Princess should have been a warning. Years before, one magazine hadposed the question to 100 women and 74 replied that they would "rather marry a commoner" than surrender their freedom to join the Imperial Family.

In private, the Princess of Wales has expressed her frustration at the Japanese government's veto of her planned trip to Kobe. The reason suggested is that the Japanese Crown Prince and Crown Princess have, themselves, not been al-lowed by palace mindersto console the earthquake's victims.

This time, the Princess of Wales has put her foot in a scandal not of her own making.

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