A Fairy-Tale Ending

ELLEN GOODMAN

June 04, 1993|By ELLEN GOODMAN

Boston. -- Once upon a time, there was a young woman named Ella who found herself working for sub-minimum wages at a dead-end job doing housecleaning and cinder removal for a wicked stepmother.

When, after much ado, a charming Prince chose young Ella to be his bride on account of her beauty, humility and teeny-weeny feet, nobody ever doubted her answer.

For that matter nobody ever doubted that they would live happily ever after. If there were troubles in the castle, the tapes of their bickering have not survived.

Fast forward now from the medieval fairy tales to the 1990s, from Disney World to the Chrysanthemum throne.

In downtown Tokyo, a woman named Masako Owada, Harvard- and Oxford-educated, dressed for success, spent years working 9 a.m. to midnight hammering out international trade agreements. She was dreaming of breaking the glass ceiling, not the slipper.

When, after much, much ado, a charming Prince Naruhito chose Masako to be his bride, on account of her intelligence, humor, worldliness and petiteness, nobody doubted her answer either. It was no.

Eventually, however, this fast-tracker at the Foreign Ministry, a certified sogoshoku or career woman, said yes, although ''not without misgivings.'' This set off a shock wave -- Masako Shock -- across the culture of Japanese working women.

What a difference a few centuries do make. The search for a prince who would Take Ella Away From All That has been replaced by the search for a woman who would Give All That Up for a prince.

Remember when the prince of Wales renounced his throne for Mrs. Simpson in 1936? The world regarded it as a stunning romantic gesture. When Masako Owada agreed to give up her job to marry the next emperor of Japan, the country talked about it as a great national service.

So next Wednesday, when the 29-year-old Masako dons a 22-pound, 12-layer $300,000 silk kimono, has her hair done in a thousand-year-old style, and goes off to marry the direct descendant of the sun goddess, some of her peers will regard this as a sacrificial altar. When she heads for the cloistered palace grounds, a lot of people will be holding their breath to find out what happens next.

Some of this is just natural curiosity in the post-Princess Di era. But more of it rests on the concern about whether she, and by inference, any modern woman can find happiness and harmony with Japanese tradition. Masako has, willy-nilly, become a powerful symbol for her generation.

Her past and future roles are at the absolute extreme ends of the freedom scale for Japanese women. The moat that she will cross, literally, to her marital home is a symbol too. Will she bring a new image to the role or become imprisoned in the old image?

If all this sounds familiar to American women, it should. We're only a few decades ahead on the continuum of hard choices that face young professional Japanese women today. Theirs are between marriage or work. Ours are now about balancing children and work.

The most popular book among young working women in Japan is called: ''I-Just-May-End-Up-Not-Getting-Married Syndrome.'' The highest ranks of corporate women in America are still disproportionately single or childless.

If every move Masako Owada makes, every step she takes, is analyzed for ''what it means to women'' that's not so unusual either. At the engagement press conference Japanese traditionalists complained she was too forward, even uppity. Non-traditionalists took one look at the white gloves she was suddenly wearing and groaned.

This is the sort of scrutiny reserved in America for the first lady, Hillary Rodham-or-not Clinton, a symbol for her generation. Last year when she gave up a job for her husband, it was controversial. This year when she took a job for her husband, it was also controversial.

In Japan, the television shows portray Masako in a navy career suit and in a kimono. In America, the election coverage showed Hillary as cookie baker or policy-maker. The sense that it's either/or is international.

Indeed, on both sides of the Pacific, change is still fragile and women feel uncertain about their decisions. One highly visible woman automatically becomes a surrogate for others.

So on June 9, a lucky day in the Buddhist calendar known as tai-ahn or ''big safety,'' a charming prince and a savvy trade negotiator are taking a big risk. People who no longer believe in fairy tales wish them the luck and skills to make this walk down the aisle into a step forward. May they -- both -- live happily ever after.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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