Empress Masako at 60

empress masakoBy TICAD7 Photographs -, CC0 via Flickr

Masako Owada was born on 9 December 1963 as the daughter of Yumiko Egashira and Hisashi Owada in a public hospital in the Tokyo suburb of Toranomon. Two years later, she was joined in the nursery by twin sisters. When Masako was not even two years old, the family moved to the Soviet Union into the diplomatic compound, as her father worked as a diplomat. Masako spent half her life in other countries because her father worked as a diplomat. Her primary schooling took place all over the world, from Moscow to Boston.

When her father was recalled to Moscow in 1981, Masako wanted to attend university. Her parents were reluctant to leave her behind but found guardians for her in old friends. And so Masako entered Harvard University to study economics. She graduated magna cum laude in 1985 and could have gone anywhere in the world – she chose to go home. And she wanted to be a diplomat like her father. Masako had to move back in with her parents as renting her own apartment was impossible. Before applying for jobs, she took constitutional and international law courses. She began working for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs the following April and was a hard worker. She often worked late, and once, when she came home at 9 in the evening, her mother commented that she was early.

How she ended up at a reception for the Infanta Elena of Spain, who was in Japan to help promote a travelling exhibition, is quite a mystery. The future Crown Prince Naruhito was to be there, and apparently, several young women were invited. When they met for the first time, she bowed, and he said, “You must be Miss Owada. I am glad that you came.” They chatted briefly before the Crown Prince was urged to move on to another guest. He later confessed to a friend, “Something shot through me the moment I met her.”

From then on, Masako’s name and face were to be found plastered on the covers of Japanese magazines. Masako and Naruhito’s courtship was conducted with almost Victorian modesty. Marrying into the Japanese Imperial family was not a fairytale, as the Crown Prince’s mother, the first commoner to marry into the family, had proven. Michiko had undergone spiteful criticisms, was forbidden from seeing her family and slowly faded away. In 1993, she collapsed just before a press conference and went mute for five months. Masako would not have an easy life.

Then Masako was selected to study for a Master’s degree in international affairs at Oxford. She must have been relieved to escape the media, but they found her and, within weeks, were stationed outside her home. She never finished her thesis – so very unlike the diligent Masako – and we don’t know why. Yet, Masako seemed determined not to marry and continue in her career. When she returned to Tokyo, she was assigned to the Second North American Division and worked there for two years. She was now approaching her 30s, and all around her, friends began to marry. It wasn’t until February 1992 that the Crown Prince once again appeared on the scene.

Her father was against the match, and it took three months of persuasion to make him change his mind. He then told his daughter that it was to be her decision. Then, the couple met for the first time in five years and spent four hours talking. In October 1992, he asked her to marry him. She could not bring herself to say yes right away and asked him if it was alright if she thought about it. Her father later called to tell the Crown Prince that Masako had been unable to decide. Naruhito refused to accept this and tried to arrange another meeting with her, and eventually, she gave in. There are some rumours that Empress Michiko herself promised to protect Masako, but we do not know for sure why she ultimately agreed.

On 9 June 1993, Masako became the Crown Princess of Japan. Her hair was soaked in camellia oil and moulded into a bun. Her traditional dress with 12 layers took an hour to put on. The entire outfit weighed around 16 kilos and cost about 350,000 dollars. She wore pale make-up and had crimson lips. Afterwards, the couple changed into more Western attire for lunch with the families. Her new home was the Crown Prince’s East Palace. The following days were a whirlwind of receptions.

In the first three years of her marriage, Masako only saw her family five times. She was now in a gilded cage, and friendships faded. A friend of hers from Oxford said, “I would not necessarily say bored but isolated, seriously isolated… that business of not being able to go out, to go shopping, to go to exhibitions, to get on the tube, to just be yourself. The isolation is a lot to do with the lack of relatives. I don’t fully understand that. The imperial family don’t have the hinterland of masses of cousins, sisters, aunts and in-law that, for example, the British or the Dutch or the Norwegian royal families have.”

From the beginning of their marriage, Masako was under pressure to produce a son, as girls were banned from inheriting the throne under the 1889 Meiji law. Between 1976 and 1993, seven girls but not a single boy were born into the family. And now only Naruhito and his younger brother were young enough to produce sons. Then, the years began to pass, and the press became ever more insistent. Six years after the wedding, it was finally, tentatively, confirmed that Masako was pregnant. At the end of the year, it became clear that Masako had suffered a miscarriage and had to have surgery to remove the foetus. A year later, Masako told the press, “Honestly speaking, it is a fact that I was disturbed by the overheated coverage in the mass media from the very start.”

Masako was now approaching 40, and the couple decided to seek fertility treatments. In April 2001, it was confirmed that Masako was pregnant once more. On 1 December 2001, Masako gave birth to a daughter named Aiko. There was still no heir. Masako was pressured to try more IVF, but she refused as the odds of it working were rapidly decreasing. Masako began cutting back on engagements, and she was admitted to hospital with shingles. Her recovery was slow, and Naruhito went to Europe on his own. At a press conference, her husband said, “Princess Masako has worked hard to adapt to the environment of the imperial household for the past ten years, but from what I can see, I think she has completely exhausted herself in trying to do so. It is true that there were developments that denied Princess Masako’s career… as well as her personality… I believe that much tact and effort will have to be expended for Princess Masako to recover her original full spirit and strength, which are required to return to her official duties.” Then, it was reluctantly confirmed that Masako was receiving drug therapy and counselling. Masako put on a brave face, but she was not well at all.

Just days before legislation was to be introduced to allow Aiko to eventually succeed her father, it was announced that Masako’s sister-in-law was pregnant with her third child – 11 years after her last child. On 6 September 2006, she gave birth to a Prince. The birth of a single Prince would not lift the concerns for the future, but the public was satisfied for now. Masako has continued to suffer for these last few years, though she has managed to take up more public duties and even went overseas a few times. She became Empress of Japan when her husband succeeded his father after his abdication in 2019.

The last few years have seen Masako come into her own as Empress. Last year, she released a statement saying, “I am deeply moved to have spent exactly half of my life in the imperial family. I have gone through many times of joy and sometimes sorrow as well.” As for her health, doctors said, “It would be desirable for Her Majesty to continue to work while regulating her health. This will give her more confidence.” Nevertheless, they consider her condition to be unstable.

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