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As they ate dinner in Lowell Dining Hall one night, friends of Masako Owada ’85 had to press her for her weekend plans. But Owada was not going out that weekend, according to her friend Sunhee Juhon ’85—she had to show the Danish ambassador around Boston.
This wasn’t the end of a diplomatic life for Owada—who became Crown Princess of Japan in 1993 after marrying Crown Prince Naruhito—and it wasn’t the beginning.
Owada, whose father has served as a senior diplomat and President of the International Court of Justice, has spent her life—academically, professionally, and personally—dedicated to both the international community and Japan’s role in it.
BRIDGING TWO WORLDS
Even though she grew up around the world, Owada was more familiar with Cambridge than most Harvard freshmen when she moved into the fourth floor of Thayer in September of 1981. Her father was a visiting professor at Harvard Law School for the previous two years, and Owada spent her junior and senior years of high school at nearby Belmont High School.
During her time at Harvard, she liked to play golf and was an Undergraduate Council representative. But Owada was never just another American Harvard student and was always aware of her Japanese identity, according to Nina S. Donnelly ’85, who lived in the same entryway of Lowell House as Owada.
“She was much more of an observer than a partaker, but she didn’t remove herself from the normal undergraduate life,” Juhon said. “She was just always really dignified—even the way she dressed was very proper. I never saw her really cut loose. I don’t think that was her way.”
Owada instead tried to bridge the gap between the two cultures, joining the Japanese Culture Society and introducing her friends to Japanese traditions. Lucia A. Giudice ’85—who lived on the fourth floor of Thayer with Owada and attended high school with her—said she remembers Owada organizing a trip for a group of friends to go to the Boston Children’s Museum to see an exhibit on traditional Japanese tea ceremonies.
“She still wanted to hold on to her culture,” Giudice said. “And she loved introducing us to it.”
Owada similarly used her academic interests in economics and politics to bring together her two cultures, including working as a research assistant translating Japanese documents for History Professor Andrew D. Gordon ’74 during the spring of her junior year. Gordon also served on the committee for Owada’s initial proposal for her economics senior thesis on Japanese-American trade relations in the 1980s, for which economist Jeffrey D. Sachs ’76 served as her advisor.
“She was a really serious and talented student who was a little bit on the shy side,” Gordon said. “She was working at a very high level.”
TWO KINDS OF DIPLOMACY
After leaving Harvard, Owada knew she wanted to continue in her father’s footsteps and join the Foreign Ministry. In 1986, she enrolled in the law department at Tokyo University to study for the Ministry’s entrance exam. She entered the Ministry only a year later—after passing an exam that less than six percent passed that year.
But only months after starting at the Foreign Ministry, Owada’s life took another turn. At a banquet in Tokyo, Owada met Crown Prince Naruhito, the bachelor prince. While the prince immediately took to Owada, there were obstacles to marriage. A Crown Princess, by Japanese tradition, must come from an aristocratic family, be under 25, and have never had a previous romantic relationship.
The 32-year-old daughter of a diplomat did not fit these first two requirements, and the Japanese press roared with speculations on the third. Owada’s Belmont and Harvard experiences also came under attack.
“There was a lot of criticism in the Japanese press that she was too American,” said Nadine H. Jacobson ’85, Owada’s Thayer floormate. “I remember thinking, as I knew Masako she was the quintessential Japanese. She was smart and respectful and reserved.”
And if she married the prince, Owada would have to give up her position as an economic specialist in the Foreign Ministry’s North America Division.
“In some ways I was a little surprised because she had such a potential for a brilliant career of her own right,” Juhon said.
Amid rumors and pressure from the Japanese media, Owada left Japan in 1988 for a two-year, Foreign Minsitry-sponsored study at Oxford. But in 1993, the Imperial Household announced the engagement, and that June Owada became Crown Princess of Japan, only the second commoner to ever marry into the royal family.
“It was a little bit of a surprise that she would want to choose that life,” Donnelly said. “But she had a strong background and a strong sense of herself. She was somebody who made up her mind, and she made up her mind about her marriage.”
Owada’s marriage was seen by many as a hope for a new step forward for women in Japanese society.
“We thought that she was going to be a more intellectual version of Princess Diana,” Donnelly said.
But the pressures of royal life were more than Owada had anticipated, and she has had difficulty dealing with the pressures of the Japanese Press and royal obligations.
The pressure to produce a male heir in the years before and after the birth of her daughter Princess Aiko in 2002 is seen by many as the Crown Princess’s breaking point. While the succession crisis ended with the birth of her nephew Prince Akishino in 2006, Owada has been suffering from an adjustment order and still remains out of the public eye.
“She is somebody who put her family and her country first,” Juhon said. “You knew that she was really studying and destined for great things, you just didn’t really anticipate it being this route.”
—Staff writer Stephanie B. Garlock can be reached at email@example.com.
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