Empress Masako is a Harvard University alumna who also studied at the University of Oxford, serving as a career diplomat before marrying into the imperial family over 25 years ago.
The 55-year-old is the second commoner after Empress Emerita Michiko, 85, to wed a crown prince. Her time as crown princess is largely characterized by her struggles to adapt to the rigid expectations of one of the world’s oldest monarchies.
Born Masako Owada in Tokyo on Dec. 9, 1963, she has two younger twin sisters and is the eldest daughter of then-diplomat Hisashi Owada, 87, a former vice foreign minister and judge at the International Court of Justice in The Hague.
Her father’s various assignments helped cultivate her international outlook from a young age — she spent her early childhood in Moscow and New York before returning to Tokyo and attending Denenchofu Futaba’s elementary, junior high and high schools. In 1979, her family moved back to the U.S. once more after her father was posted to the Japanese Embassy in Washington and invited to Harvard as a visiting professor of international law.
After graduating from high school in the U.S., the empress went on to major in international economics at Harvard and later attended the University of Tokyo’s Faculty of Law to study politics before passing the Japanese Foreign Ministry’s entrance exam in 1986.
In 1988, she was assigned a probationary diplomat role in the U.K. at the Japanese Embassy in London and studied at Oxford’s Balliol College for two years.
Fluent in English, French and German, the empress engaged in negotiations to resolve Japan-U.S. trade disputes after returning to Japan.
The empress is known to be good at softball, skiing and tennis.
She first met then-Crown Prince Naruhito in October 1986 at a party to welcome Spain’s Princess Elena on a visit to Japan. However, despite meeting several more times over the next year, it was not until August 1992 that they encountered each other again.
He proposed to her in October of that year and, after turning him down because of indecision over leaving her career, she eventually accepted in December 1992.
What won her over was his honest admission of his own worries. Initially, he had declared, “I will protect you with all my might for the rest of your life.” This time, he said he was unsure whether to propose to her again because he had begun questioning whether he could truly live up to the gravity of his words.
The couple’s engagement became official in January 1993 and the two wed the following June. Around 190,000 well-wishers greeted the newlyweds during a procession in central Tokyo. For some of the general public, she represented the potential for change in the imperial tradition.
However, over the next decade, the accumulated pressures that accompanied her new role as crown princess would gradually take their toll. Instead of being able to continue applying her diplomatic and language skills when carrying out her duties, heavy expectations to produce a male heir resulted in the Imperial Household Agency preventing her from traveling abroad.
“The situation in which I could not visit other countries for six years required a great effort for myself to adjust,” the empress said at a press conference in 2002.
At present, Japan’s Imperial House Law limits imperial succession to males of the male line belonging to the imperial lineage. There has been debate over whether to allow women of the imperial family to succeed to the throne, but no substantial progress has been made.
The couple’s only child, Princess Aiko, was born in 2001. The 17-year-old is currently a third-year student at Gakushuin Girls’ Senior High School in Tokyo and shares her parents’ interest in learning about other countries.
Following the birth of their daughter, the then-crown princess continued to experience pressure to produce a son and began receiving treatment for a physical and mental ailment in 2003. In 2004, the Imperial Household Agency disclosed she had been diagnosed with adjustment disorder; following this, she withdrew from all official duties.
Two months prior to that announcement, the then-crown prince had shared during a press conference that, “It is true that there were developments that denied Masako’s career as a diplomat as well as her personality.” His unexpected comment sparked a society-wide debate about the Imperial Household Agency prioritizing the birth of male heirs.
While she has mostly remained out of the spotlight since then, the empress has gradually expanded the scope of her public activities in recent years. These efforts include visiting children at welfare facilities and learning about animal therapy options for sick children.
“I want to devote myself to the happiness of the people, so I will make efforts to that end while gaining more experience,” she said on her birthday last December.
“She must well understand other people’s pain as she has suffered herself from an adjustment disorder,” said an individual familiar with her recent activities of interacting with sick children.
Chronology of major events related to Empress Masako’s life
Dec. 9, 1963 — Born the eldest daughter of diplomat Hisashi Owada.
September 1981 — Enters Harvard University.
June 1985 — Graduates from Harvard University.
April 1986 — Enters the University of Tokyo.
Oct. 18, 1986 — Prince Naruhito, Masako Owada meet for the first time at reception to welcome Spain’s Princess Elena.
April 1987 — Joins the Foreign Ministry.
July 1988 — Moves to Britain to study at University of Oxford’s Balliol College.
August 1992 — Crown Prince Naruhito, Masako Owada meet again at home of former diplomat Kensuke Yanagiya.
Oct. 3, 1992 — Crown Prince Naruhito proposes to Masako Owada for the first time at Shinhama Imperial Wild Duck Preserve in Ichikawa, Chiba Prefecture.
Dec. 12, 1992 — Accepts Crown Prince Naruhito’s second attempt.
June 9, 1993 — Marries Crown Prince Naruhito.
November 1994 — The couple visit Middle Eastern countries on their first official overseas trip.
Dec. 1, 2001 — Daughter, Princess Aiko, is born.
March 11, 2011 — Massive earthquake, tsunami hit northeastern Japan, triggering nuclear disaster in Fukushima. The couple visits those affected at evacuation centers in following months.
June 9, 2018 — Crown Prince Naruhito, Crown Princess Masako celebrate 25 years of marriage.
May 1, 2019 — Becomes empress.
Download the PDF of the Emperor’s Enthronement supplement