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DECEMBER 20, 1999 VOL. 154 NO. 24


Dusan Vranic/AP
The eyes have it: Masako and Naruhito under scrutiny in Belgium.

A Fairy-Tale Ending?
After years of waiting, Japan's royal-watchers are thrilled over hints that the Princess may be pregnant
By TIM LARIMER Tokyo

Is she or isn't she pregnant? The question was probably first asked the day after Masako married Crown Prince Naruhito back in June 1993. Japan has been demanding an answer for six-and-a-half frustrating years since, as good-natured curiosity has given way to a maternal concern and, more recently, something approaching irritation. third year without pregnancy! a tabloid headline once screamed. Throughout it all, anxious royal watchers have searched for clues. The Crown Princess switched from high-heeled shoes to flats earlier this year: Ah, she must be pregnant. Masako didn't accompany Naruhito to the summit of a recent mountain climb: Ah, she must be pregnant. Masako's fashion sense changed from business suits to matronly frocks: definitely, she must be pregnant.

So it has been with a mixture of relief and elation that Japan has responded to last week's rumblings that Masako is finally in the family way. The daily Asahi Shimbun printed a special 1:30 a.m. Friday edition to break the news: masako shows signs of pregnancy. TV stations ran hours of special coverage about the apparent blessed event. The Japanese media quoted unnamed sources in the secretive Imperial Household Agency confirming the news; they said Masako was suffering from morning sickness and expects a royal birth around Aug. 6. "We can't judge now whether she's pregnant or not," the Prince's chief aide, Kiyoshi Furukawa, said at a hastily arranged press conference. But royal watchers couldn't help but notice that she missed an appointment with Emperor Akihito earlier this month after returning from a trip to Belgium, where she and the Prince attended a royal wedding. The official explanation was that she had a cold. Then last week, a party planned for her 36th birthday was abruptly canceled. Unconfirmed media reports said she will have a sonogram this week.

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"I'm so excited about the news, I can hardly eat," says Eiko Okano, a 57-year-old Tokyo housewife. Okano is one of a small brigade of Princess groupies who follow Masako on her public outings and camp out at the Togu Palace in central Tokyo, hoping for a royal glimpse. "Finally, the fruit is born," says Toshiaki Kawahara, author of several books on Japan's royals. If true, it's happening none too soon. Like Britain's dysfunctional Windsors, Japan's royals have a public relations problem, but of the opposite kind: they're too dull. "They are in danger of being forgotten by the public altogether," says prominent writer and social critic Naoki Inose. Masako was supposed to inject a spark into a boring cast of characters. She was viewed as a symbol, though not by choice, of the changing role of women in Japan. When Prince Naruhito was born in 1960, for example, just 5% of women went to college; now the level is nearly 50%. Women are putting off marriage and motherhood until later and later. Masako, daughter of a high-ranking diplomat, was educated at Harvard University and was working long hours at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs when the romantically challenged Prince Naruhito courted her.

But predictions that Masako would revolutionize the monarchy have not come to fruition, as she has disappeared into the ritualistic royal routine. As custom decrees, she walks three steps behind her husband. Her trip to Belgium was only her fourth journey overseas. Her rare public statements, like those she gave in November, are dutifully bland. "Quite a lot has happened this year, too," she recited from a prepared text. "It seems that even the weather changes greatly from year to year, and I feel that recently it is becoming harder and harder to predict." To be fair to the Princess, between musings about playing the flute and walking her dogs, she also referred to some serious issues like child abuse, the Kosovo conflict and the September nuclear accident at Tokaimura. It's just that she didn't have much to say about those issues except to note their importance. "Everyone had lots of expectations," says Toshiya Matsuzaki, a journalist who covers the royals. "But she has vanished as a figure. Her real attraction has been hidden away somewhere."

Some people have even turned against her, often for the silliest of reasons. A handful of writers criticize her for talking about herself too much. Others scrutinized her regal wave and smile and declared them insincere. And, most damning as the baby-less months ticked by, she was accused of failing to do the one thing ultimately expected of her: producing a future emperor. There was even discussion in the press of changing the royal chain of command so that a woman could ascend to the Chrysanthemum Throne. Naruhito's younger brother, Prince Akishino, has two daughters. (It wouldn't be that revolutionary: the reign of Gosakuramachi, the last of Japan's eight empresses, ended in 1770.)

All along, though, Masako has had her share of sympathizers, particularly among career women who see their own struggles mirrored in her experiences and who offer the kind of support a Princess in a cloistered palace surely craves. "I'm glad to hear the news if it's true," says Makiko Tanaka, a 35-year-old business executive. "When she wore low-heeled shoes and they speculated she was pregnant, it must have been so humiliating. I hope she can relax now." Princess Masako can only hope Japan will let her do just that.

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