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It's no fairy tale for Japan’s crown princess

The pressure to provide a male heir for a royal household steeped in centuries of tradition has taken its toll on Japan's crown princess.  NBC News' Arata Yamamoto reports from Tokyo.
Japan's Crown Prince Naruhito and Crown Princess Masako smile with their daughter, Princess Aiko, at the Togu Palace in Tokyo, in this Febuary 2004 file photo distributed by the Imperial Household Agency to mark Naruhito's 44th birthday.Imperial Household Agency via AP file
/ Source: NBC News

The pressure to provide a male heir for a royal household steeped in centuries of tradition can take its toll on anyone. For Masako Owada, the Japanese crown princess, the pressure may have proved to be too much to take.

In 1993, the Harvard-educated Masako married into the imperial family, leaving behind a promising career as a diplomat at Japan's Foreign Ministry.

But the stress of her role as the sequestered crown princess has come spilling out of the normally reticent royal family after an unprecedented outburst from her husband.

On May 10, on the eve of his trip to attend the two weddings of the crown princes of Denmark and Spain, Crown Prince Naruhito held a customary pre-travel press conference, one of the few occasions when members of the royal family make themselves available to the media.

But what should have been a routine press conference turned extraordinary when the prince disclosed his growing frustration over the treatment of his wife, 40, who has taken an open-ended medical leave from her royal duties since December.

"Masako 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 that she has completely exhausted herself," Naruhito said.

And he blasted unnamed culprits in the secretive household. "It is also true that actions were taken which dismissed Masako's previous career as well as her personality, which is based on that career.”

Although the crown prince refused to offer any further explanation or disclose the target of his anger, his remarks nonetheless sparked a national debate, including parliamentary hearings and a daily witch hunt on local talk shows to figure out who was responsible for the princess's affliction.

On his return from Europe this week, he again touched on the furor. "It is truly unfortunate the crown princess was unable to accompany me. I am grateful for the encouragement I received from the people I met from various countries and for their inquiries" into how Masako was doing, Naruhito said.

"I would be happy if the two of us could make the trip together some day."

Assurances, adoration
When the idea of marriage to the crown prince of Japan was initially presented, Masako, a multi-linguist with a budding diplomatic career, was said to be hesitant to abandon her work and enter the little-known world of Japanese royalty.

She agreed to the marriage after assurances from the crown prince that he would protect her and with the notion that she would be able to pursue her wishes of incorporating statecraft into her new role as a member of the imperial family.

The Japanese public welcomed the attractive, world-wise princess, who often drew comparisons to England's Princess Diana.

However, the similarity between the two princesses stopped at the fact that in Japan, the Imperial Household Agency controls practically every aspect of Japanese royalty, including matters related to the emperor and the empress.

The troubles began quickly for Masako when the agency's attention turned increasingly to the issue of preserving the royal lineage. Her much-desired travels abroad were denied.

In fact, during the past 10 years, she has made only five official trips overseas.

The implicit message was that she needed to produce a male heir to the Chrysanthemum Throne before delving into royal statesmanship.

Even after the much-anticipated birth of Princess Aiko two years ago, she has been allowed only one trip, covering Australia and New Zealand.

During a press conference in 2002, Masako herself admitted it took quite a bit of effort on her part to adjust to the reality that prevented her from visiting foreign countries.

But the burden of producing a male successor continued.

Toshio Yuasa, the head of the Imperial Household Agency, was heard saying last summer that "although it would be wrong to apply pressure ... as the grand steward of the imperial household, frankly, I would like them to have another baby."

Too much to take
Gradually toward the end of last year, the princess started to shy away from domestic functions. In December she was hospitalized for shingles, a skin rash that was linked to acute stress.

Only three days after the princess was released from the hospital, Yuasa made another controversial remark, suggesting that the crown prince's younger brother, who already has two daughters, produce another child.

That seemed to have been the last straw. At the recommendation of her doctors, Masako began her current seclusion.

At one point, in a very rare move, she took her daughter to her parents’ private summer home outside of Tokyo and stayed there for a month, away from her royal attendants.

The airing of all the royal dirty laundry has forced a public showdown. The crown prince is expected to meet with Yuasa to discuss the reasons for his public outburst, the emperor and the empress have expressed concern, while Yuasa also is expected to present a clarification to the public.

Meanwhile, outside the imperial palace, among the daily flock of tourists, housewife Hiroko Suzuki lamented the situation.

"It’s not just the imperial household," she said. "Japanese society itself needs to change so that women no longer have to choose between their careers and looking after their homes."