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The royal British revival of Princess Masako

by Shihoko Goto

WASHINGTON — An invitation to the upcoming nuptials of Prince William to Kate Middleton next April should be making its way to Crown Prince Naruhito and Crown Princess Masako soon. The odds of Princess Masako actually attending the much-anticipated wedding are stacked against her, given that the princess has made no official overseas trips in years.

Indeed, the public has been led to believe that her state of mind remains so fragile that even short public appearances near the palace grounds can prove too arduous for the princess, let alone traveling halfway across the globe.

Yet the Imperial Household Agency should seriously consider allowing Princess Masako to attend the London wedding since it would be in Japan’s best national interest. An invitation to the event is a diplomatic opportunity unto itself, and a chance for Japan to showcase its own history and the relevance of its heritage in modern society.

After all, Westminster Abbey on April 29 will be a veritable hall of international VIPs, not least heads of state from across the globe. The hierarchy at this summit meeting will be unlike any other.

While the United States remains Britain’s biggest ally — President Barack Obama will most likely attend the wedding as a guest of honor — Buckingham Palace’s protocol will ensure that ruling monarchs stand ahead of Obama and all other world leaders.

That means that while Obama may be a rock star on the world stage and lead the most powerful nation on Earth, the king of Tonga will take precedence over any Group of Seven leader, Obama included.

Within the ranks of royalty, meanwhile, Japan will be above most countries except a handful of Western European nations. The fact that Princess Masako and Prince Naruhito will be seated closer to Prince William and his bride than most invitees should speak volumes about the role of royalty in the modern age and of personal connections as a diplomatic tool. While instant communication and immediate gratification may be de rigueur these days, including forming foreign policy, royal protocol deems that historical precedent takes precedence.

That will be to Japan’s advantage. As Japan frets about losing its economic standing to China and concerns grow over the ever-increasing threat on the Korean Peninsula, the imperial family is one thing that Japan can showcase.

To many, of course, the Emperor Showa, the father of the present emperor Akihito, represents Japan’s aggressive imperialist past. Nevertheless, the imperial family’s heritage far predates the turmoil of World War II, and it should play a key role in ensuring diplomatic ties that cannot be replaced by modern technology or by democratically elected officials whose time in office is limited.

Princess Masako, too, should be challenged to rise to the occasion and represent her country at one of the most closely watched weddings in years. She will no doubt relish the challenge. The princess will have ample time to prepare both mentally and physically for the joyous occasion. At the same time, she need not be concerned about being the sole focus of media attention. Moreover, she should be aware of the implications of her not being there; royal tongues would undoubtedly wag about her husband again attending a European wedding without his wife. Such negative publicity should be avoided for Japan’s sake.

If she does attend, it would be a chance for her to muscle in on the soft power of regal diplomacy. Surely many Britons would be charmed to be reminded of the fact that Princess Masako and Prince Naruhito were undergraduates at Oxford, especially since the British prince and bride-to-be met in college, too. I was a first-year undergraduate student at Oxford when the then-Masako Owada was seconded from the Japanese Foreign Ministry to study at the university for two years, and regularly pursued by the Japanese media as a potential royal bride during that time.

Back then, she was a strong woman who was determined to make her way in a stratified, male-dominated bureaucracy. She was confident of her abilities, and did not suffer the presence of fools, including the press that harassed her. When the official announcement came that she was abandoning her chosen career and marrying into the ultimate Japanese family, I had expected her to become even more formidable and use her position to thrust Japan further into the limelight.

I have not given up on those hopes. If Japan is to maintain its imperial family, its members should be used to the fullest extent possible. What better way is there for the princess to get a fresh start than by charming guests at a royal wedding.

Shihoko Goto is a Japanese journalist based in Washington D.C. and a former external affairs officer at the World Bank.