Japan's Princess Masako Makes a Rare Public Appearance

The notoriously shy princess stepped out for an imperial banquet on Oct. 29

Photo: Robin Utrecht/picture-alliance/dpa/AP

For many young girls, becoming a princess is a dream come true. But for Japan’s Crown Princess Masako, somewhere along the way, the fairy tale went wrong.

The 50-year-old princess, who has lived a life largely in seclusion since 2002, made headlines this week for a rare public appearance at an imperial banquet honoring the Netherlands’ Queen Maxima and King Willem-Alexander.

For years, rumors have swirled about the notoriously private princess. Once a young Harvard grad with a promising career as a diplomat ahead of her, she gave it all up to marry Crown Prince Naruhito, now 54.

And then – she vanished from public life. Princess Masako withdrew behind the walls of the Imperial Palace, amid reports that she had suffered a nervous breakdown and speculation that it was the result of being unable to produce a male heir.

Japanese royal officials have said only that she suffers from an “adjustment disorder,” though many speculate that depression is the real culprit.

What happened to drive this well-educated woman to self-imposed solitude? And is she finally ready to return to the public eye?

Early Life
The child of a diplomat, Masako Owada grew up all over the world. Born in Japan, she attended daycare in Moscow, kindergarten in New York and high school in Massachusetts, before graduating from Harvard with a degree in Economics.

Her future looked bright. After graduating, she moved back to Japan, where she studied law at the University of Tokyo to prepare for the Diplomatic Service Evaluation.

That year, Masako was one of just three women to pass the exam. She joined the Foreign Ministry in 1987, heading to Oxford for a two-year post-grad study in 1988. She would not finish her thesis.

A Royal Romance
For Prince Naruhito, it was as though lightning struck the first time he laid eyes on Masako, according to reports at the time.

In 1986, the two met at a reception for Spain’s Princess Elena. Utterly smitten, he began courting her immediately.

At first, Masako was not interested. She had a life ahead of her, a future she had built brick by brick. Marrying into the Japanese royal family would mean throwing away her career and her independence, the very essence of who she was, it was widely reported.

But Naruhito would not be dissuaded, arguing that the royal position was “another form of diplomacy.”

And so, after two rejected proposals, Masako finally accepted his hand in marriage, wedding him in a traditional Japanese ceremony in 1993.

Hope bloomed among the progressives in Japan. Here was an accomplished businesswoman, marrying into the rigid Imperial family. Could she bring about the change that Japan’s ancient monarchy so desperately needed?

Struggles with Fertility

Unfortunately, Princess Masako faced a challenge she never anticipated: the inability to produce an heir.

It took six years before she got pregnant for the first time and she miscarried shortly thereafter.

In 2001, their first child was finally born, reportedly with the help of fertility treatments. The only problem? It was a girl: Princess Aiko, now 12. And in Japan, only male heirs may ascend to the throne.

Officials called on the couple to have another child. Under immense pressure from all sides, Princess Masako retreated into seclusion and the rumors of depression began.

A Return to Public Life?
Prince Naruhito, who appears totally devoted to his wife, has defended her from detractors, memorably saying in 2004 that the princess was “completely exhausted” from trying to fit into the royal household, which he added had “nullified her career and nullified her character.”

But over the years, other events appear to have driven Princess Masako further into isolation.

In 2006, her sister-in-law, Princess Kiko did what Masako couldn’t and gave birth to a son, Prince Hisahito. He is third in line to Japan’s Chrysanthemum Throne.

Since then, Kiko, 48, has enjoyed a beloved-celebrity status that still eludes Masako.

“Princess Kiko was courageous to give birth to a third child in a society of low birthrate,” said House of Councilors president Chikage Ogi in 2006. “This is what women should learn from her.”

For all of her impressive accomplishments, Princess Masako is still, and likely will always be, defined by her inability to produce a male heir in the rigid Japanese monarchy.

Could the tragic story have a happy ending? One can only hope that this week’s appearance brings more public outings, and hopefully, some peace for the princess.

Want more stories like this?

Sign up for our newsletter and other special offers:

sign me up

Thank you for signing up!

Related Articles