The princess and the people

IN OCTOBER last year, during the run-up to her wedding, Japan's Princess Sayako took some lessons. Not in how to spice up married life, or throw a decent dinner party, but rather how to live like a commoner.

She was thought to have been doing rather well - learning to drive, getting her head round domestic finances and whatnot - but one day, turning to a friend, she reportedly betrayed her isolated and privileged background by asking: "If one shops at the supermarket, how does one carry all the food?"

Just under a year later, as the Japanese royal family arrive in their droves at Tokyo's Aiiku hospital to welcome the first male heir to the family for four generations - the as yet unnamed baby son of Prince Akishino and Princess Kiko - his aunt, now known simply as Mrs Sayako Kuroda, is adapting to her new life. Willingly cast out of the family under the Japanese imperial system, which states that a royal daughter must join her husband's family following her marriage, the 36-year-old now lives in a modest Tokyo apartment with her husband, Yoshiki Kuroda, a Tokyo town planner who earns around 35,000 a year.

She has quit her part-time job as an ornithologist, makes her own bento boxes - the ingredients for which she buys, yes, at the supermarket - and can sometimes be spotted strolling through Tokyo's Shinjuku Gyoen park, enjoying the sunshine. She still maintains close contact with her parents, brothers and their families - they are, after all, her relatives - but she is no longer one of them.

She has no title, no privileges, no inheritance, and no place on the country's civil list. Those who have been watching the recent hand-wringing among Japanese dignitaries over the line of succession on the Chrysanthemum throne, however, must be thinking that, all things considered, she's better off out of it.

Steeped so deeply in tradition that they make the British Royals' ceremonial occasions look like a family entertainment night at a Haven Holiday Park, the Japanese imperial family is a maelstrom of ritual and conservatism that seems out of step with modern Japan. And yet it is a fairly new law (it was introduced in 1947) that bans females from ascending to the throne, and has caused huge problems for a family that until last week seemed determined to give birth only to girls.

The birth of the young Prince has, it seems, taken the subject off the agenda. But it has also sparked new discussion over the lack of equality that is clearly inherent in Japan's first family. Working women across Japan are said to be angered that the debate over succession - before Princess Kiko's pregnancy, the prospect of Princess Aiko, the four-year-old daughter of Crown Prince Naruhito, ascending the throne was being seriously discussed - is likely to slide from the media's gaze.

For many young Japanese women, Princess Sayako is something of an icon: strong, independent and said to be fond of a drink. Her mother Empress Michiko - who was born a commoner - made a concerted effort to adapt her daughter to relatively normal everyday life from a young age, even providing her with her own kitchen so that she could learn to cook. Sayako went to university, and often attended student parties with friends.

She even took a job after graduation, spending more than a decade as a researcher at the Yamashina Institute of Ornithology, a move that was unheard of for a member of Japanese royalty. Now, although she has given up work, she is free to pursue her life relatively undisturbed by the trappings of royalty. Her story is in marked contrast to that of her sister-in-law, Princess Masako, the wife of Crown Prince Naruhito and mother of Princess Aiko.

Princess Masako was born Masako Owada, the daughter of a high-ranking Japanese diplomat. As a child she travelled all over the world, living first in Moscow and then, as a teenager, in the United States, where her father was appointed a guest professor at Harvard University.

She was exceptionally bright at school and fluent in English by her teens, achieving a perfect 4.0 grade average and becoming president of the prestigious National Honor Society. Not content with attending one university, she went to three, graduating magna cum laude (the highest distinction possible) with a BA in economics from Harvard, completing a graduate course in international relations at Balliol College, Oxford, as well as spending time at the University of Tokyo, which is where, in 1987, she first met her husband-to-be.

Masako could have chosen to marry the Crown Prince then and there, but she was ambitious, and determined to have a career. She took a job in the Japanese ministry of foreign affairs and again travelled the world, this time in her own right, meeting both Boris Yeltsin and Bill Clinton as part of her job.

Meanwhile, she was quietly seeing the Crown Prince, who was besotted with her. She, however, was equally besotted with her career, and turned down two proposals from him in favour of work. Finally, in January 1993, she accepted him. They were married in June of that year and it was then that life as the newly crowned Princess Masako knew it ended.

Forced to give up her work - it is illegal for Japanese royal family members to be employed by the government - she sank into depression. Knowing that she was expected to provide the family with an heir only added to the pressure, and in 1999 she suffered a miscarriage. Princess Aiko was born in 2001. Less than 18 months later, Princess Masako disappeared from public life.

While the Japanese media were left to wonder as to her whereabouts, it wasn't until six months later that, in a dramatic break from tradition, her husband announced that his wife was finding royal life difficult. The burdens of motherhood, her official duties, the scrutiny of the media and a bout of shingles had exhausted her, he told a shocked Japanese public.

Two months later, the royal household itself made public the news that she was suffering from a mental illness - or "adjustment disorder" - and was suffering from sleeplessness, anxiety, and general "mental and physical weariness".

Her recovery has been slow. It is only since December last year that she has begun making public appearances again, and she has also released her own statement, saying that she is "gradually getting better".

It is clear that the career path of a princess was not, perhaps, the best one for Masako. But more than that, her tale, compared with that of her sister-in-law, lays bare the vast gender dichotomy of Japanese culture, traditionally one of the most patriarchal in the world.

It is a country that is, perhaps, at a crossroads: celebrating its energetic, bright young career women, while at the same time still wishing to be allowed to treat them as secondary to men in almost every way.

For the country's feminist-minded women, it must be frustrating that there is now no prospect of a female figurehead in its royal family. Whether that will ever change is a decision likely to lie in the hands of a tiny, as yet unnamed baby boy.

Back to the top of the page