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IMPERIAL LIFESTYLE BINDS VIBRANT, YOUNG PRINCESS.

Byline: Sheryl WuDunn The New York Times

The train carrying Japan's most famous young couple chugged into the station recently, and out came Princess Masako, all charm and elegance in a pale-green suit, waving to her picture-snapping fans and walking briskly, two steps behind the crown prince.

That is almost the only kind of public appearance that Princess Masako makes these days - a quick swish from a train to a car, en route to a hospital or charity - for she has virtually disappeared since her marriage three years ago. After a wedding that captivated this country, a union filled with the promise of imperial renaissance, these days there is only silence.

Before she married, Masako Owada was the symbol of the new Japanese career woman, an attractive Harvard-educated diplomat in the Foreign Ministry, moving with professional ease in five foreign languages.

When she became the crown princess, she was the second commoner ever to marry into the imperial family. Many in this nation brimmed with the hope that she could help update the Chrysanthemum throne, ushering into the modern age a dynasty that is the world's oldest and is shrouded in pageantry and tradition.

Now, Masako-san, as the crown princess is often called, has not only virtually vanished from sight, but is also measured by a standard that is thousands of years old: her ability to bear a son.

For the couple, producing an heir is a weighty responsibility. The emperor, Akihito, is said to be the 125th direct descendant in an imperial dynasty that reaches back 26 centuries - although these claims reflect the triumph of faith over scholarship.

But without a son in sight, people are openly discussing the succession. After Akihito, the throne goes to the crown prince, Naruhito, but if he dies without leaving a son, it will go to his younger brother, Prince Akishino. Akishino, however, has only two daughters now; after him, there is no male descendant.

So Japanese imperial-watchers are debating the possibility of the Chrysanthemum throne's going to a daughter. After all, the dynasty was spawned by a Japanese sun goddess, Amaterasu, and eight of Japan's 125 emperors have been women.

The last female emperor - the title of empress is reserved for the emperor's wife - reigned for seven years until 1770. Then a century ago, the imperial code was changed to forbid a woman from ascending the throne.

Parliament would have to pass a new law before a woman could become emperor, but if that happened, then there would be potential long-term heirs. At least for now, for example, the throne could go to one of Prince Akishino's daughters, Mako and Kako.

Though the crown princess is only 32, there is an old Japanese saying, ``Marry for three years, and bear no child, then it's time to leave

'' But in a country where divorce is still uncommon, any kind of parting in the imperial family is unthinkable.

If there is any overwhelming feeling these days that ordinary Japanese have for the crown princess, it is sympathy. They tend to identify more with her as a commoner than with the prince, and do not often discuss publicly the prince's role in producing an heir.

``She married into a position where her responsibility is to give birth to a boy, and I feel for her,'' said Naomi Yamaha, 33, a computer engineer. ``Even as commoners, there is a lot of pressure on you to have a boy if you marry the oldest son.''

And the pressure is a thousand times more intense for the crown princess, living in a gilded imperial cage where her every move is watched and evaluated.

``Indeed, being the wife in the imperial family has got to be the No. 1 source of stress,'' said Rihachi Iizuka, a prominent fertility specialist at Keio University. ``That's why caged animals like monkeys and pandas in zoos don't have as many babies as the ones out in the wild.''

Princess Masako's royal zoo keepers are the 1,100 administrators and servants who form the Imperial Household Agency, a bastion of conservatism and protector of tradition and ritual. It has not only cloistered Princess Masako and the crown prince, but many say it has created a greater distance between the imperial family and the ordinary Japanese people.

``The Japanese imperial family is not in step with the times, with the perception of the new generation of citizens,'' said Toshiaki Kawahara, who has written many books on the imperial household. ``Unless they mix with the ordinary people, the imperial family will be forgotten.''

Another of the imperial tasks is to build links with other countries, the kind of diplomacy for which the crown princess spent her life training. But the couple's last trip abroad was to the Middle East in January 1995.

Some people say that the cloak of silence the Imperial Household Agency has now wrapped around her may be an effort to play down her presence until the royal couple produce an heir. Others say it is the agency's method of easing stress.

``The agency wants to preserve a mood of tranquillity for the couple,'' said Minoru Hamao, a former chamberlain to the emperor and a private tutor of the crown prince. ``If she comes out in public, she'd be surrounded by the press, by photographers, and it would make her nervous.''

Masako's mother-in-law, the Empress Michiko, the first commoner to be brought into the imperial fold, suddenly collapsed nearly three years ago in an incident that left her unable to speak for several months. It is still not clear what caused it, but many people blame Japan's gossipy magazines for triggering the empress' breakdown with unflattering accounts of her.
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Geographic Code:4EXCZ
Date:Sep 22, 1996
Words:946
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