Japanese prince finally gets a 'yes' Harvard graduate to be next empress

January 07, 1993|By Leslie Helm | Leslie Helm,Los Angeles Times

TOKYO -- The long search ended yesterday: Crown Prince Naruhito, 32, has picked a bride. Japan's future empress is a Harvard University graduate and rising star in the Foreign Ministry.

Masako Owada, 29, the eldest daughter of Vice Foreign Minister Hisashi Owada, is fluent in four languages and is widely seen as an important future asset to promoting smooth Japanese ties with the rest of the world.

The happy news dominated Japanese television last night, breaking through the pall of economic gloom that has fallen over Japan this new year. "With this news, light has come into Japan, people will regain their will to drive forward," said former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone with a smile.

Jubilant Japanese expressed joy and relief that the crown prince has found a mate after his well-publicized, five-year search. There was no official confirmation of the betrothal from the palace or the Foreign Ministry, although there was no doubt as to the veracity of reports.

Hundreds of reporters gathered last night outside the Owada home, a concrete, church-like structure with high arches, a sloping roof and narrow slit windows in a tony neighborhood of Tokyo.

"We were not prepared, and we don't know what to say," said a voice, identified as Miss Owada's mother, speaking through the intercom. She said her daughter would not talk to reporters because she had a cold.

Japanese reporters who follow the imperial household say they have known that Miss Owada was the crown prince's likely choice since mid-December but refrained from publicizing the news because of a voluntary ban on such reporting, which was supposed to last until Feb. 1.

Prince Naruhito, 32, became heir to the throne at the death of his grandfather, Emperor Hirohito, on Jan. 7, 1989, when his father became emperor at the age of 55.

Under Japan's constitution, Prince Naruhito's choice of a wife must be confirmed by the Imperial Household Council, which includes the Speakers of both houses of Parliament and the chief justice of the Supreme Court. The group is expect

ed to meet Jan. 19.

But the Japanese government is not only sure to bless the marriage, observers say it also probably will stage so grand a wedding that some have suggested it could even help lift the Japanese economy out of the recession. Speculation is that the wedding will be in May.

When Prince Naruhito's parents wed in April 1959, it sparked a surge in television sales, and the date is considered a milestone in the rise of modern, industrial Japan. Analysts say the wedding date also will have an important bearing on the timing of a general election for the lower house of Parliament.

As for the bride-to-be, she will be only the second commoner to marry a Japanese crown prince. Empress Michiko was the first when she married Prince Akihito, now emperor and Naruhito's father.

Miss Owada spent much of her young life overseas. She graduated from Belmont High School in suburban Boston before studying economics at Harvard. She entered Tokyo University's Law Department but almost immediately passed the examination, giving her entry to the Foreign Ministry.

It is highly unusual for someone who has not attended one of Japan's elite universities to become a career bureaucrat. But soon after she joined the Foreign Ministry in 1986, she was sent by the ministry to study international relations at Oxford University.

When Prince Naruhito said on his return from a stint at Oxford in 1987 that he would like to be married by the time he reached 30, speculation quickly turned to Miss Owada. Shedenied interest at the time, insisting that she wanted to pursue a career in the Foreign Ministry.

The crown prince -- who is an expert on the history of water navigation in Britain and Japan -- reportedly first met Miss Owada formally in 1986 at a reception for Princess Elena of Spain. Miss Owada was an attendant. A serious courtship began last October when the two met at an imperial duck hunting ground.

As a member of the Foreign Ministry's North American section, she has reportedly played a role in such key negotiations as the U.S.-Japan microchip agreement. Television stations repeatedly flashed a photo in which she appears to be translating for U.S. Trade Representative Carla A. Hills. In addition to Japanese and English, she speaks German and French. Television reports were also quick to note that Miss Owada is a good cook and capable of organizinglarge parties.

Japanese news magazines have followed every twist and turn of the crown prince's search for a mate. Some have suggested that a modern Japanese woman would not want to live the closeted life of an empress; they even have speculated on whether a new hairstyle for the crown prince would him attract a bride

There was some reluctance regarding the choice of Miss Owada because her grandfather, Yutaka Egashira, was the former chairman of Chisso Corp., a company that dumped mercury-laden waste into the bay of Minamata in the 1960s, causing serious diseases among people eating mercury-poisoned fish from the polluted water.

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