Skip to navigationSkip to content

Japan’s reluctant princess enters the limelight: Meet empress Masako

Imperial Household Agency of Japan/Handout via Reuters
Preparing for the throne.
By Isabella Steger
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

When crown princess Masako attended the Japanese imperial family’s twice-yearly garden party in November, she did something so remarkable that it was breathlessly covered (link in Japanese) in national media. For the first time in 15 years, she walked the entire course of the garden and stayed to speak with guests for the duration.

“During the garden party, Masako was so engaged in talking with some of the guests,” the Asahi newspaper noted, “that Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko ended up too far ahead” of her and husband Naruhito, the crown prince. Though Masako had appeared in previous years at the party, where members of the imperial family meet with guests such as athletes and political figures, the media noted each time that she retired for home prematurely.

Kazuhiro Nogi/Pool via Reuters
Crown prince Naruhito and crown princess Masako greet guests during autumn party at Akasaka Palace Imperial garden in Tokyo, Nov. 9, 2018.

Masako’s appearances at the garden party (paywall) have been obsessively followed over the years—as with all her other movements—as a gauge for her recovery from a stress-related mental illness that doctors diagnosed in 2004 as “adjustment disorder.” In the immediate aftermath, Masako mostly hid from the public eye.

Now, following the imminent abdication of Akihito, her schedule has grown increasingly packed. Masako, 55, is preparing to take up the role of empress when her husband ascends to the Chrysanthemum throne on May 1. In September, she stayed overnight in Fukuoka prefecture on a visit to victims of the previous year’s heavy rains and attended another engagement in Tokyo the following day—a previously inconceivable set of back-to-back events. Doctors had feared this level of activity could exacerbate her illness.

Reuters/Imperial Household Agency/Handout
Emperor Akihito and empress Michiko pose for a photograph for the New Year with their family at the Imperial Palace, Dec. 14, 2004. Family members are Crown prince Naruhito (front R), crown princess Masako (L) holding their daughter Aiko, princess Sayako (back L), prince Akishino (back C) and his wife princess Kiko (back R) and their daughters Mako (back 2nd L) and Kako.

The dilemma of women in Japan

She has lived for decades under the pressures of being a princess and having the minutiae of her life dissected—including coverage of the misdemeanor of speaking for many seconds longer (paywall) than her husband did at a news conference shortly after their wedding in 1993. Masako now finds herself on the cusp of taking on an even more high-profile role. Media reports paint a picture of a princess who is happier and more at ease than in the past. When Masako made a public appearance on her birthday in December, she was candid about her “insecurity” at becoming empress while also acknowledging that her improving health allowed her to take on more duties.

AP Photo/ Naokazu Oinuma
Masako Owada shakes hands with foreign minister Michio Watanabe as she bids farewell to her former workplace, Feb. 9, 1993.

Masako cuts a sympathetic figure in Japan as the country’s answer to Britain’s late princess Diana, a spirited woman whose ambitions were crushed by the expectations that come with marrying into royalty. Many women in Japan who have felt society’s prejudices (paywall) empathize with a woman seen to be too outspoken or too intelligent for her own good. They saw glimpses of themselves in Masako. Like so many women in Japan, she has been forced to choose between family and career, typically sacrificing the latter.

Diana, however, was able to travel freely and vacation abroad (as European royals can), but Masako and other members of the Japanese imperial household are accorded far fewer freedoms. Their finances are publicly provided and tightly controlled, with allowances stipulated by law—a stark transition for a peripatetic, multilingual woman who lived abroad as a child because of her father’s foreign-ministry job. She then studied at Harvard and Oxford, and later won an exceedingly rare chance to work for the foreign ministry, at a time when female diplomats were almost unheard of in Japan.

Under the protection of the prince

Another thing sets the two princesses apart: There is little doubt of her husband’s devotion to her. The 59-year-old Naruhito reportedly told friends later that “something shot through me the moment I met her,” according to an account in Australian journalist Ben Hills’ book on Masako (which was heavily suppressed in Japan because of its negative portrayal of the royal family’s treatment of her).

Crown Prince Naruhito and bride Masako in formal ancient ritual robes at their wedding in 1993.

The two first met in 1986 at an event in honor of Spain’s princess in a palace in Tokyo, shortly after Masako Owada was accepted to the foreign ministry. It’s widely reported that Naruhito developed an appreciation for outspoken, opinionated women while he was at Oxford as a graduate student.

AP Photo/Sarah Blake Morgan
Keith George, a friend of crown prince Naruhito, as holds a photo of them taken during Naruhito’s visit in 1985. George, 57, is a friend of Naruhito’s from Oxford.
Crown prince Naruhito, then 4-years-old, takes a walk with his parents the emperor and the empress during their tour to Wada in Chiba Prefecture, in this March 23, 1964 photo.

Naruhito worked hard over the next seven years to court Masako, who was hesitant about giving up her freedom to join the royal family. The crown prince, who has been unusually outspoken about the pressures that come with being a royal, on many occasions publicly defended his wife’s retreat from the public eye. In 2004, he famously stated she had “completely exhausted herself” trying to adapt to her royal role, and that “there were developments that denied princess Masako’s career.” Since their engagement, Naruhito has repeatedly vowed to “protect” the princess.

Naruhito himself also grapples with the constraints of being in the imperial family. In his autobiography detailing his time at Oxford—where he wrote a thesis on transport on the River Thames—he explained how he developed his obsession with public transportation as a child:

In my position I could not go outside the gates whenever I wanted to, but when I wandered along the paths in the grounds of the Akasaka palace, I felt that I was making a journey into a part of the world I did not know at all. For me these paths played an important role as a means of connecting me with the unknown world.

The modern family

Many of the expectations that dogged Masako as crown princess have receded. For years, she faced immense pressure to bear a son in order to continue the 2,000-year-old royal line. After a miscarriage in 1999, she gave birth to daughter Aiko in 2001. The pressure piled on (paywall) in the years after, as Naruhito’s younger brother Akishino had two daughters, with the government even discussing in 2005 the possibility of changing the law to allow female succession. All was resolved, however, when Akishino’s wife gave birth to a son in 2006. Discussion of female succession has been dormant since, particularly as the idea is opposed by conservatives in the ruling party.

Crown princess Masako with crown prince Naruhito, and their daughter princess Aiko, walking in the gardens of Togu Palace in Tokyo.

That doesn’t mean that the harsh glare of the public has disappeared for the women of Japan’s imperial family. In a tale echoing that of Meghan Markle’s UK marriage to Prince Harry, princess Mako, the 27-year-old elder daughter of Akishino, has been criticized in the media (paywall) following the 2017 announcement of her engagement to Kei Komuro, a commoner. Coverage has centered around whether her fiancé, a student at Fordham University in New York, is of the right pedigree. Tabloids reported that his mother was in serious financial trouble, leading some to question his motives in wanting to marry the princess. The two plan to wed in 2020. Mako will be required to leave the imperial family following her marriage to a commoner, a rule that does not apply to men.

“The recent scandal with princess Mako where it’s suggested that (Komuro) is not an ideal husband, leading to the whole family being blamed for not bringing up their daughter well… it goes back to the notion that the imperial family should be a kind of model family for Japanese people,” said Hiroko Takeda, a political sociologist at Nagoya University.

Reuters/Shizuo Kambayashi/Pool/File
Princess Mako and her fiancé Kei Komuro during a press conference to announce their engagement at Akasaka East Residence in Tokyo, Sept. 3, 2017.

Naruhito, who has already broken so many royal taboos, has vowed to continue the work of his father in modernizing the imperial family and forming closer ties with the Japanese people, taking on causes such as environmental conservation.

Discussion of allowing women to rise to the throne will also resume after Naruhito’s accession, as part of a broader attempt by the government to safeguard future imperial successions. Even the imperial family can’t escape the reality that, like Japan more broadly, it is shrinking.

📬 A periodic dispatch from the annual session of the United Nations General Assembly in NYC.

By providing your email, you agree to the Quartz Privacy Policy.