'Fairy Tale' Keeps Japanese Royals Up at Night

Japanese imperial family beset with health problems and succession fears.

ByABC News
December 17, 2008, 12:14 PM

TOKYO, Feb. 2, 2008, 2009— -- When Masako Owada, a vivacious up-and-coming foreign diplomat, married Crown Prince Naruhito of Japan in 1993, the country watched in fascination.

The new royal couple carried an international twist: The bride was educated at both Harvard and Oxford, the crown prince had also spent time at Oxford.

He wooed the bride with the famous line, "Masako-san, I will protect you for my entire life."

The nation tuned in to watch the wedding procession fit for a modern fairy tale and the hearts of the Japanese went out to their young couple.

Fifteen years later, however, not all parts of the fairy tale have worked out.

The nation was shocked in 2003 at the announcement that Princess Masako was pulling out of official duties. Although the Imperial Household Agency first reported the Princess suffered from shingles, it later said she suffered an "adjustment disorder."

The years of struggle to produce a male heir, coupled with a miscarriage, have mounted enormous pressures on Princess Masako, who gave birth to Princess Aiko in 2001.

Soon after Princess Aiko was born, the Japanese government started a debate about whether to allow a female member of the family to succeed to the chrysanthemum throne. The law allows only male members to take over the position.

The debate ended when Emperor Akihito's second son, Prince Akishino and his wife Princess Kiko welcomed the birth of a baby boy, Prince Hisahito in 2006.

The public seems to have some sympathy for Princess Masako, who has spent almost half of her life overseas and left her career path as a foreign diplomat to join the imperial family.

"It must have been a huge culture clash, her much Western-influenced life met with the rigid way of life at the palace bound by tradition, customs and rituals," Tokyo office worker Hiromi Takahashi, 47, said. "I am not sure if the bureaucratic agency staff totally understood what Princess Masako was going through."

The public's expectations grew as Princess Masako attended some recent public events. The princess joined Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko last year as they welcomed King Juan Carlos I of Spain and his wife Queen Sofia to the palace garden.

This was Princess Masako's first appearance at an official event for state guests in more than five years. She even managed to host a dinner for the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall at the residence in late October 2008.

"There was a question whether or not the princess could carry out the dinner as she had planned," said Toshiya Matsuzaki, a veteran journalist who has followed the royal family for the past 50 years for the Japanese weekly magazine Joseijishin. "Her condition is still touch and go, so a lot of decisions often have to wait until the last minute. We often do not know what to expect."

Although it is customary for members of the royal family to give a news conference on birthdays, Princess Masako has not spoken to the media since her birthday in 2002. She issued a written statement on her 45th birthday in early Decemberm last year in which she admitted she has not reached a full recovery. "I am still not able to do everything to a satisfactory extent," she wrote. "