Observers often liken Crown Princess Masako to Britain’s Princess Diana. They both embody the fairy tale gone tragically wrong — women outside the royal circle wooed by the heir to the throne, only to end up clashing with the establishment and surrounded by controversy and speculation that has made them fodder for the media.

But the similarities end there. While Diana divorced Prince Charles aged 35 after 15 years of marriage in 1996, and enjoyed a life outside the palace until her untimely death a year later, her 45-year-old Japanese counterpart, now almost 16 years into her marriage to Crown Prince Naruhito, remains in the world’s oldest dynasty, struggling with a stress-related disorder.

For many, the Crown Princess’ marriage to the Imperial heir in June 1993 heralded a new era. She was the cream of the intellectual elite, fluent in several languages and a fast-rising diplomat in the Foreign Ministry. When she married Emperor Akihito’s eldest son, many hoped her career would help enhance Japan’s presence on the international stage.

But once she entered the palace, the new princess had difficulties adjusting to the Imperial environment and made few visits abroad. After she fell ill she relinquished most of her official duties, and although she has recently started to resume some of them she has not yet fully recovered.

Some media reports and sections of public opinion have been critical of the Crown Princess, accusing her of shirking her duties, while others sympathize with her for being trapped in an institution renowned for its secrecy and conservatism.

So how did she come to marry the heir to the Chrysanthemum Throne, and what does the future hold for her? Following are some basic questions and answers:

Just how glittering was Crown Princess Masako’s career before her marriage?

Born Masako Owada in 1963, she spent her early years abroad, following her father, a Foreign Ministry diplomat, to Moscow and New York. She graduated from Harvard University with a degree in economics and later transferred to the University of Tokyo to study law.

After passing the notoriously difficult examination for diplomats, she joined the Foreign Ministry in 1987 and was sent to the University of Oxford as part of the ministry’s training program.

Because women with her career record were still rare at the time, she was featured in the national media.

How did she meet her royal husband?

The couple first met at a palace party in 1986, and the press started to speculate that she was a potential bride for the Crown Prince, a matter of increasing urgency because the Imperial heir was nearing his 30s. The Crown Prince, who had previously expressed his wish for a wife who could speak her own mind, courted Owada upon her return from Oxford University.

But observers, including Keiji Emori in his book “Masako-sama, Protected by His Highness’ Love,” noted that she was hesitant about the idea of marriage, as she was pursuing her career, and she continued to deny she would be marrying the Crown Prince.

However, as other candidates fell by the wayside, the Imperial Household Agency set up more meetings between the pair. Their engagement was announced in January 1993 and they were married that June. An estimated 190,000 people came out to watch their wedding parade and TV viewing peaked at nearly 80 percent.

But according to Naoko Tomono, author of “Princess Masako’s Tomorrow,” the 29-year-old bride was already proving too assertive for some.

“She was criticized by some of the media and the Imperial Household Agency for speaking for longer than her fiance at the engagement news conference,” Tomono told The Japan Times.

Why did she fall ill?

In 2004, the agency published a statement saying the Crown Princess was suffering from “adjustment disorder,” a stress-related malady, and placed her in the care of specialists.

Although the origin of her illness has not been formally specified, Imperial family watchers have blamed the pressure placed on her to give birth to a son, because only a male can ascend the throne. This in turn limited her duties abroad, and she made far fewer trips overseas than her mother-in-law, Empress Michiko, who gave birth to the Crown Prince a year after marrying the Emperor.

The Crown Princess suffered a miscarriage in 1999, then gave birth to Princess Aiko in 2001. The following year, she made her first official visit overseas in six years. At the news conference before her trip, she described the strain she had felt from not being able to go abroad.

“To be honest, in my life before the marriage . . . I went overseas regularly and that was a part of my lifestyle, so I needed to make a big effort to adapt to the situation of not going abroad for six years,” she told reporters.

The opinion that her illness came from the suffocating Imperial environment was shared by none other than her husband. At a news conference in 2004, just before an overseas visit he was to make without his wife, who had fallen ill, the Crown Prince said she had been trying hard to adapt herself to the Imperial family environment.

“But from what I can see, she seems to have become exhausted because of it. It is true there have been moves that deny Masako’s career and her character that stems from it,” he said — an unusually frank declaration for a royal that reportedly upset the agency and other family members.

The official announcement of her diagnosis came two months after the Crown Prince’s controversial statement.

How do observers explain the situation?

When analyzing the Crown Princess’ illness, some observers point the finger at the Imperial Household Agency, which maintains the rigid traditions of the royal household.

According to Ben Hills, author of the controversial book “Princess Masako: Prisoner of the Chrysanthemum Throne,” the governmental branch gained unprecedented control over the Imperial family after the war, when the royals were stripped of financial and political power.

“This places (the Imperial family) in the control of the agency, which decides where they can go, what they can do, whom they can meet and what they may say — a degree of control which no other royal family in the world has to tolerate,” he said in an e-mail to The Japan Times.

Hills’ book has attracted criticism from the Imperial Household Agency, who said it contains inaccuracies, a charge the author denies.

According to Tomono, the agency also mishandled the Crown Princess’ illness.

“As they are a traditionally minded body, they were reluctant to accept or understand her emotional illness, or explain it to the public. They allowed the press to say that she fell ill because she was selfish, and I think that sin is grave,” she said.

In 2005, a government panel was formed to discuss the possibility of revising the Imperial Household Law to ease the clause that only males can ascend the throne. The move was observed by the media as an effort to relieve some of the pressure on the Crown Princess, as well as the Imperial family, into which no males were born after the Crown Prince’s generation.

Then, in 2006, a baby boy was born to Prince Akishino, the younger brother of the Crown Prince. Discussion revising the law has since stopped.

Is it possible for the Crown Princess to divorce her husband and leave the Imperial family?

It is generally accepted that the Crown Princess can divorce her husband under the Imperial Household Law, which stipulates that a commoner married to a prince can leave the family through divorce or if her husband dies.

In reality, however, divorce between the couple is highly unlikely, according to Tomono.

“Neither the Crown Prince nor Princess Masako is the type to divorce and run away from the problem. In fact, that’s precisely why she fell ill in the first place,” she said.

“The couple get on well, and the princess feels strongly about her husband and the royal institution. They simply want to show (the public) that they are working hard to do what they think is right,” she added.

Meanwhile, others paint a bleaker picture of the troubled Crown Princess’ future.

“She will gradually turn from being a vivacious, intelligent, talented woman into a gray wraith, disappearing from time to time with mental and physical problems,” said Hills.

The Weekly FYI appears Tuesdays (Wednesday in some areas). Readers are encouraged to send ideas, questions and opinions to National News Desk

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