Masako blossoms in role of Japan's Empress

Experts say former diplomat is back in her comfort zone, after years of stressful pressure

Empress Masako after the enthronement of her husband at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo on Tuesday. The Empress has long struggled with what the imperial household terms an ''adjustment disorder''. PHOTO: REUTERS

Japan's Empress Masako, having long struggled with what the imperial household terms an "adjustment disorder", has blossomed in the spotlight since her husband Naruhito became Emperor in May.

Brimming with newfound confidence, she has wowed the public, breaking free of the constraints placed on her by the rigid strictures of the palace, restrictions then-Crown Prince Naruhito lashed out at and described as "moves to deny Masako's career and personality".

Images in the media of the Empress, looking resplendent at Tuesday's enthronement and wearing a bright smile as she chatted with foreign heads of state and royalty, set many abuzz.

A senior official of the Imperial Household Agency told Kyodo News: "The recovery of the Empress' health condition has supported the couple's favourable performances."

But experts said this "recovery" largely stems from how Empress Masako, 55, is now back in her comfort zone. The Harvard-educated Empress was a high-flying diplomat who grew up in Tokyo, Moscow and New York, and had also played a part in resolving trade disputes between the United States and Japan in the 1980s.

She is also a polyglot, being fluent in English, French and German.

Empress Masako set Twitter abuzz, with the trending term tsuyaku nashi (no interpreter), after chatting at ease with US President Donald Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron on their respective visits to Japan in May and June.

"Crown princesses have very little power within the imperial house but now that she's Empress, she can definitely do some things that are different," said Portland State University's Japanese modern history expert Kenneth Ruoff.

The Empress, whose father is former vice-foreign minister Hisashi Owada, turned down then-Crown Prince Naruhito's proposal twice, agonising over a decision that would mean giving up her career.

While he had vowed to "protect you with all my might for the rest of your life", what eventually won her over was his confession that he did not know if he would ever live up to the gravity of his promise.

But upon marrying, she immediately faced pressure to produce a male heir and was also not allowed to continue using her diplomatic and language skills. She has admitted that it took "a great effort to adjust" to not being able to travel.

What added to the stress was criticism from ultra-conservatives that she did not produce a male heir. The couple's only child, Princess Aiko, was born in 2001, and Masako herself was diagnosed with "adjustment disorder" three years later.

She mostly stayed out of the spotlight after that, but has in recent years been returning to the public eye, with visits to welfare facilities.

She opened up to her insecurities at her birthday news conference last year, saying: "I sometimes feel uneasy about to what extent I will be able to be of service to people, but I will strive to do my best so I can contribute to their happiness."

While it is premature to talk about Empress Masako's legacy, observers believe her own suffering will allow her to better empathise with the disaster-stricken and less fortunate, while her diplomatic talent makes her a soft-power icon.

"It gives plenty of reassurance to the general public when they see Empress Masako carrying out her important duties," said Dr Keiko Hongo of the Historiographical Institute at the University of Tokyo.

And Dr Ruoff said: "As Crown Princess, Masako did not appreciate in the least being treated as though her main worth as a human being was to serve as a womb for a male heir to the throne.

"She is someone who, from a young age, wanted to serve her country and in that sense the position of Empress aligns with her life goals."


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 25, 2019, with the headline Masako blossoms in role of Japan's Empress. Subscribe