By Cynthia Sanz
June 21, 1993 12:00 PM

KIMONOS RUSTLED, AND IN THE nearby woods birds chirped. But as Japan’s Crown Prince Naruhito wed former diplomat Masako Owada at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo June 9, there was no processional music and almost no other sound as 812 guests watched Shinto priests lead the bride and groom into the inner sanctum of the Kashikodokoro shrine for the ceremony itself. There were no rings to exchange and, afterward, not even a perfunctory public kiss. “It was simple,” said Hidehisa Otsuji, a guest and member of the Diet, Japan’s legislature. “Very simple is the best.”

In keeping with the monarchy’s centuries-old rituals, Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko, the groom’s parents, did not attend. Those unwritten laws, however, did not prohibit them from watching the event at home on their high-definition television set. Masako’s parents, grandparents and younger twin sisters, Setsuko and Reiko. 26, occupied the front row of chairs outside the shrine. Her mother, Yumiko, dabbed at a tear when she saw her 29-year-old daughter in her wedding costume. “I am deeply touched and just filled with emotions,” she said later at a press conference, adding that she had instructed Masako to “please lake care of yourself and do your utmost for your country.” Said Masako’s father, Hisashi: “I only told her to have a happy life.”

Masako’s new life began at 6:30 a.m., when she exchanged goodbyes and a series of formal bows with her family outside their Tokyo home. She was then whisked across town and over the moat to the palace, where her 2½-hour dressing procedure began with a ceremonial cleansing. Next she donned a multicolored cocoon of nine kimonos weighing about 30 pounds and had her chin-length hair upswept and lacquered.

After the 15-minute ceremony, the bridal pair changed into formal Western attire to officially announce their marriage to the Emperor and Empress. Masako wore a sleeveless white gown designed by Hanae Mori and a diamond tiara and necklace given to her by the Empress. She added a matching jacket to her ensemble for the couple’s postnuptial parade through Tokyo in a Rolls-Royce convertible. About 200,000 flag-waving Japanese, many of whom had waited hours in the rain, cheered the newlyweds as they passed on their way to the Crown Prince’s Togu Palace. Millions of others spent the day—declared a national holiday—watching the day-long television coverage, which featured a computer animation of the private Shinto ceremony and commentary by Brooke Shields, whose poster the Crown Prince once kept on the wall of his dorm room at Oxford. “The wedding was wonderful,” bubbled one young onlooker. “I think Masako is in love but couldn’t say so earlier.”

If she is, it is due in no small part to the tireless wooing of the 33-year-old Prince, who reportedly was smitten with Masako the first time he saw her, at a 1986 palace reception. But Owada, the Harvard and Oxford-educated daughter of a prominent diplomat, wasn’t interested in giving up her career in the foreign service. Twice she gently declined his proposals. But Hiro, as he is affectionately known, never lost interest. In the spring of 1992, the Prince decided to try again, and reportedly even enlisted the help of his mother. What persuaded Masako, she said after her Dec. 12 engagement, was the Prince’s promise: “You might have fears and worries about joining the Imperial household. But I will protect you for my entire life.”

According to some press reports, the Prince may have to start making good on his promise immediately. Mixed in with the joy of the wedding came some sharp criticism of Masako’s behavior from some of Japan’s ultraconservatives. A former aide to the Prince complained that she had entered a doorway before the Prince and had been too outspoken. “She walks in front of a man because Westerners say, ‘Ladies first,’ ” said the aide, Minoru Hamao. “I believe she should display more modesty.”

Clearly it will take all the diplomacy Masako learned at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to tame her critics and the notoriously rigid Imperial Household Agency, which manages the daily affairs of the Emperor’s family. But most Japanese feel she’s up to the job and look forward to seeing what contemporary spin she will put on her new position. One can only imagine what traditionalists will say when she enters the kitchen at the Togu Palace to cook her favorite dish—lasagna.