A tale of two princesses

ONCE upon a time, there were two princesses.

And while it may sound like a fairytale, this is the very situation that two Japanese women find themselves in today. Not that one of the protagonists in the tale is a princess any longer; by choosing to marry out of the Imperial family last week, Sayako relinquished her royal title and became plain Mrs Kuroda.

And while she may miss being waited on, the lavish receptions and all the other perks of being a member of a family that is still revered in Japan, it is clear that Sayako fell in love and she will almost certainly have a happier and more stress-free life than her sister-in-law, Crown Princess Masako.

After the prescribed 12 months of rituals and traditional preparations within the walls of the palace, a sprawling collection of old-fashioned chambers, ante-rooms and reception halls concealed behind pine trees and surrounded by a moat in the very centre of Tokyo, Princess Sayako left her home for the previous 36 years for the last time shortly after 11am on Tuesday.

In a black limousine flanked by police outriders, she was driven very slowly past crowds of well-wishers for less than one mile to another of the Japanese capital's landmarks, the stately Imperial Hotel.

From the moment she emerged from the palace gates, however, it was clear to the onlookers that they were not watching a re-run of the June 1993 wedding of Crown Prince Naruhito, who is next in line to the Chrysanthemum Throne, and Masako Owada. On that day, Tokyo came to a standstill as tens of thousands of people lined the route of the procession after the wedding.

Crown Princess Masako performed the ancient rituals wrapped in the traditional 12-layered kimono, known as a "juni hitoe", that is worn by members of the Imperial family on their wedding day. Similarly, the crown prince wore a man's kimono and carried a fan before him as he entered the shrine. Public expectations were high; even 13 years ago, Japan knew that it was facing a crisis of succession and a son was required to continue the lineage.

In contrast, Sayako was driven to her big day wearing a simple, western-style white silk dress with a single string of pearls. Beaming, she waved to the crowds along the route.

At the hotel, the princess and Yoshiki Kuroda, a 40-year-old urban planner with the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, were greeted by Michihisa Kitashirakawa, chief priest of the Ise Jingu Shrine, and led to the sparsely furnished room where they were to exchange their vows. Observing the custom of walking some steps behind her husband-to-be, Sayako and Kuroda, wearing a morning suit, completed the 30-minute Shinto rite of drinking a series of cups containing sake rice wine before about 30 close relatives.

With those simple gestures, she became another commoner among the 127 million Japanese, gaining both a husband and a surname for the first time in her life. Members of the Imperial family have a given name and the honorific Norinomiya to mark them apart from the masses. She also gained a postal address and her name appears on Japan's official registers of residency for the first time.

Those invited to the wedding included Crown Princess Masako, who stood out from the kimonos of the rest of the female guests by wearing a burgundy velvet suit with a lace collar. Standing alongside her husband, the last link in the world's oldest hereditary monarchy, which can trace its history back 1,600 years to the legendary sun goddess Amaterasu, she will inevitably have thought back to the day on which she said "I do" and changed her life irrevocably.

The daughter of a senior diplomat, Masako led an unusual and exciting life as a child, travelling the world and attending schools in Moscow and Massachusetts. She studied economics at Harvard University and graduated magna cum laude in 1985 before completing a postgraduate degree in international relations at Oxford University in 1990. Fluent in Russian, English, French and German, her potential was soon noticed by the government and she was recruited by the Japanese foreign ministry and put on the fast-track for future diplomats.

She had equally come to the attention of the Imperial Household Agency, which is very much the power behind Japan's throne and was on the look-out for a suitable bride for Crown Prince Naruhito. By then in his early 30s, there was concern in the corridors of power that the prince was the last male to be born into the Imperial family and, because women are by law not permitted to sit on the throne, he would become the last emperor.

It seems Masako politely turned down the prince's approaches three times before at last agreeing to become his wife. But, in return for giving up her career, she managed to wring some concessions from the Imperial Household Agency, which agreed that she could act as a roving ambassador for Japan, putting her undoubted skills to the most appropriate use. It quickly became apparent that the agency had little intention of keeping its side of the bargain, however, and the pressure to produce a child - a male heir - became intense.

The Japanese media - usually restrained when it comes to its own royals - joined in the speculation. The crown prince tried to deflect the questions when they were asked none too subtly when the nation could expect the good news, but she suffered a miscarriage in 1999 that was blamed partly on the pressure.

In December 2001, reportedly after undergoing fertility treatment, the princess finally gave birth. Unfortunately - in the Imperial Household Agency's eyes, at least - the baby was a girl and failed to solve the succession crisis.

After the birth of Aiko, Princess Masako suffered what the palace has called a "stress-induced illness". Royal-watchers believe she suffered a nervous breakdown - in exactly the same way her mother-in-law, Empress Michiko, did in the 1960s.

The women's lives have several parallels; both were commoners who married into the Imperial family but buckled - despite their husbands' best efforts - under the strictures of the conservative and highly traditional agency that runs the palace.

Since suffering her illness, Crown Princess Masako has rarely been seen in public. And even though she does have the sympathy of the Japanese people, she must inevitably question her decision to leave a normal life behind for the cloistered confines of the palace.

Sayako, on the other hand, has flown in the opposite direction, and her application to her studies of life beyond the palace moat suggest that she was keen to do so. She has been taking driving lessons and is learning how to cook - she is apparently pretty good at Chinese cuisine.

Sayako and her husband are currently living in a rented property while the finishing touches are put on a 500,000 apartment in the Mejiro district of northern Tokyo, close to the Gakushuin University that they both attended.

When they are settled in, the former princess will have to learn the mundane chores that other Japanese have to deal with on a daily basis, from doing the shopping at the local supermarket to collecting the dry cleaning and putting petrol in the car. And she will have to do it on a budget of a little more than 35,000 a year, her husband's salary.

Sayako will not, however, go entirely without as the government stuck with historic practice and provided a one-time gift of 750,000 to ensure she "retains a decency appropriate to her birth".

The Japanese public and media are intrigued at how Sayako will manage the transition from princess to housewife, with the left-leaning Asahi newspaper quoting a lady-in-waiting as telling her charge before she left home how difficult it can be to clean out wardrobes.

"What? You have to clean up?" the princess apparently responded. There is less speculation about when she will fall pregnant, largely because, even if her child is a boy, he will not be eligible for the throne.

Ironically, a government panel is deliberating changes to the law that would permit a woman to become empress - for the first time since Go-Sakuramachi between 1762 and 1771 - and not force daughters to renounce the family in the future.

When, as seems likely, the law is changed, it will have come too late for the former Princess Sayako. Although, maybe, she knew full well the implications and decided that a more ordinary life was what she wanted, both for herself and her children - boys and girls.

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