A NEW PRINCESS STIRS JAPAN When Masaka Owada Marries Crown Prince Naruhito June 9, She Gives Up Her Career and Private Life to Enter the Rarified World of Japan's Imperial Household

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HE was once seen as the most ineligible bachelor in Japan. She was a promising young diplomat who spent half her youth outside Japan and six years avoiding his affection for her.

But despite their pasts, Crown Prince Naruhito and Masako Owada will be wed on June 9 in a millennia-old ceremony and in a royal match reflecting Japan's troubled search for new roles for its emperor and for Japanese women.

In its simplest meaning, the long-awaited marriage is a highly orchestrated attempt by the powerful Imperial Household Agency (IHA) to ensure that Japan has a male heir to the Chrysanthemum Throne, the world's oldest unbroken dynasty.

But the event has triggered mixed emotions, raising questions:

Can Ms. Owada, who is worldly and outspoken, easily enter the cloistered life behind the imperial moat, obey the strict etiquette, and follow the ancient rituals of Japan's indigenous Shinto religion? Or will she, as a future empress, alter a tradition-bound institution that fewer and fewer Japanese hold in awe?

To the many young Japanese who are apathetic about the emperor "system" and who see it as an anachronism, June 9 will be just another official holiday, specially declared for the event.

And for many businesses beset by a recession, the event is a chance to cash in on an expected "Masako boom" with wedding-related sales. The Japanese media, too, plan day-long coverage of a ceremony that will be measured in minutes.

For one group of activists, who recently held a seminar on "What is there to celebrate about the crown prince's wedding?" the event is not politically correct. Feminist historian Yuko Suzuki, for instance, says the only role for a woman in the imperial family is to produce a successor. She says the root of discrimination in Japan lies in the 19th-century law that only men can be emperor.

The imperial family does hold unusual privilege in a society that otherwise sees itself as egalitarian. After World War II, the emperor was demoted from a "living god" to a symbol of the state under a new American-directed constitution. That began an evolution designed to help the institution keep pace with Japanese society by narrowing the gap between royalty and the people.

With Owada joining the imperial family as crown princess, that pace may quicken, as many wish it would. "We hope they will present a new `face' of Japan in an era when our nation plays an increasingly important role on the international stage," an editorial in the Nikkei daily business newspaper said.

A strong minority of Japanese, however, contend that the imperial family should stay remote as keepers of "innocent" spiritual purity, and not become so common. "Some people think that if you take the mystery out of the emperor, you reduce him as a symbol," says Keio University scholar Sumiko Iwao.

Today's Japanese feel starved for fulfillment, writes Osaka University professor Masakazu Yamazaki, and are "looking to the crown prince's wedding to provide an alternative means of satisfying this spiritual hunger."

The imperial family's mystique will not last much longer, he points out, and the royals must resolve the same contradiction between tradition and modern values that Japanese society is coping with.

The best clues so far to how Owada and Naruhito will change the institution together can be found in their unusual courtship.

They first met in 1986 when she was 23 and studying law at Tokyo University and he was 26, just starting his bride hunt. She was one of several young women invited to an autumn reception for Spain's Princess Elena in an obvious attempt at matchmaking. He claims he knew then that she was his choice. She, however, was pursuing a career. The crown prince told reporters: "Masako-san was always on my mind, and I asked the IHA frequently, `Can't it be Masako-san?'"

But she demurred, and the 1,100-person IHA, which closely guards and controls the emperor's family, was not high on her either. …