Royal love eclipses sumo grief

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The Independent Online
IT WAS enough to make Japan forget economic recession and political scandals, at least for a day. No sooner had the country's most sensational showbiz engagement been called off than it was announced that Crown Prince Naruhito had at last found a bride.

For several weeks news organisations have been told to prepare for an announcement on the long- awaited engagement of the Crown Prince. As soon as sources in the Imperial Household Agency confirmed that the heir to the Chrysanthemum Throne would marry a 29-year-old Japanese diplomat, television news studios were transformed into quasi-wedding parlours decorated with flowers, white lace trimmings and pictures of the imperial couple, while documentaries on the backgrounds of the prince and his bride-to-be were shown.

Television channels were not so well-prepared for the first big story of the day - the news that sumo superstar Takahanada is to break his engagement with Rie Miyazawa, a national sex symbol. The split between the country's most famous sportsman and most- photographed actress was deemed important enough for special bulletins to be put out, interrupting normal programmes.

Takahanada announced his engagement to Ms Miyazawa last October, in a surprise statement that was quickly labelled the 'Taka-Rie shock'. Ever since chat shows, tabloid papers and popular magazines have been outdoing each other in covering the romance of the decade. Yesterday, however, an afternoon paper broke the devastating news that the couple's engagement is to be called off. Apparently the master of Takahanada's wrestling stable told him he would never attain the highest position of yokozuna, or grand champion, if he went down the aisle with Ms Miyazawa, aged 19, who is best known for posing nude in a photo book which has already sold one million copies.

One reason for the orgy of 'Taka-Rie' coverage was that for almost a year, Japanese media had been deprived of their favourite sport - speculating over who would marry Prince Naruhito. Tokyo's tabloid papers and sensational weekly magazines pursued a series of women thought to be possible choices so exhaustively that the powerful Imperial Household Agency imposed a news black-out on all marriage speculation last February.

The press obediently observed the black-out, but in recent weeks had been put on notice that an announcement was imminent, giving them time to prepare the necessary background material. The bride-to-be, Masako Owada, who has long been regarded as a likely choice, will now find out what it is like to be trailed 24 hours a day by several dozen reporters and photographers, as Ms Miyazawa is.

Like the current Empress, Michiko, Ms Owada is a commoner, and is expected to breathe fresh life into the imperial family, which is closely supervised by a tradition-bound group of courtiers. She is a graduate of Harvard, has also studied at Oxford, and speaks fluent English, German and French as well as her native Japanese. She now works on the North America desk at the Foreign Ministry.

Prince Naruhito, 32, also has considerable international experience, including two years of studies at Merton College, Oxford, which he enjoyed for the freedom it gave him from the imperial household. He will be the first emperor of Japan to have been educated outside the country, and has said that his experience in Britain persuaded him of the importance of keeping in close contact with ordinary Japanese people.

Traditionally the Japanese emperor has lived in almost complete isolation from his subjects, his life tightly controlled by the Imperial Household Agency. Emperor Akihito has already made the first attempts to adopt a more common touch, a move his son seems destined to follow.

The Crown Prince had once said he wanted to marry by the age of 30 and later compared his tardiness in finding a bride to the difficulties of Prince Charles when he was still a bachelor.

Ms Owada, who met the Prince at a concert in 1986, had long been rumoured as a likely choice for his wife. The two lost touch when Ms Owada went to Oxford in 1988, but their relationship began again last August and, according to palace sources, the Prince proposed to her last month.

(Photograph omitted)