TOKYO – When Masako Owada became a crown princess, she gave up her surname, her independence and her budding career in order to surrender to the Imperial House of Japan, and she is now preparing to ascend to the Chrysanthemum Throne.
The 55-year-old wife of Naruhito has had many nicknames since she joined the royal family but perhaps the most popular one has been “the sad princess.”
Whatever name she goes by, long gone are days when she was known as a “clever clogs” at school and college.
As Masako prepares to become the next Empress of Japan on Wednesday, the monarch has overcome many challenges and broken the status quo but in the process, the rigid protocol of the Japanese Imperial House has chipped away at her spirit.
The soon-to-be empress is the daughter of Hisashi Owada, a diplomat who was the secretary general of the Foreign Ministry who took his wife and three daughters around the world with him as his career saw him take several international posts.
Traveling during her childhood made Masako an excellent linguist with six languages under her belt, two of which – English and French – she can speak fluently.
But her many years abroad also distanced Masako from her home country, something her critics have always been quick to call her up on.
Aged 18 months, Masako moved to Moscow with her family. She later went to New York before returning to Tokyo for a short period only to leave for Boston in the United States.
She was educated at both Harvard and Oxford Universities and embarked on a career following in her father’s footsteps.
“She is like flowing water,” her fellow college student Yukie Kudo once said of Masako.
When she graduated from the Economics Department of Harvard she went on to work at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs after being selected from a pool of 800 candidates of which 28 were chosen and becoming one of only two women to join the Japanese diplomatic division in the US.
Masako, with a promising future ahead, would see her life take a radical shift in 1987 when she was invited to join a reception in Tokyo in honor of Spain’s Princess Elena. It was there that she met her future husband, Naruhito.
“You must be Miss Owada. I am glad you came,” Naruhito told Masako at their first meeting.
The pair went on to have a long courtship which lasted seven years, with long breaks as Masako hesitated, fearing the relationship would interrupt her professional career.
Masako, like her mother-in-law Michiko, does not have royal blood and as if that wasn’t enough, during her courtship years with Naruhito she continued to break the glass ceiling in a professional landscape that was dominated by men.
Finally, on Dec. 12, 1992, Masako agreed to marry Naruhito.
The royal wedding took place on June 9, 1993.
But this did not mark the beginning of a classic fairytale. The date marked the end of Masako Owada and beginning of the story of “the sad princess.”
The stiff imperial protocol put pressure on Masako to produce a male heir to the throne.
The pressure pushed her into isolation in 2003. First due to a skin condition and later due to an “adjustment disorder,” although experts have suggested she was suffering from depression.
Naruhito, who had promised to protect Masako from the strict protocol of the Imperial House, lashed out at a press conference on May 10, 2004.
“Princess Masako, giving up her job as a diplomat to enter the Imperial Household, was greatly distressed that she was not allowed to make overseas visits for a long time,” he said.
“She has worked hard to adapt to the environment of the Imperial Household for the past 10 years, but from what I can see, I think she has completely exhausted herself trying to do so,” the crown prince added.
Since then, Masako has slowly started making more public appearances.