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Published: Sunday, 8/8/2004

Pressure on the princess

Japan's Crown Princess Masako should, with or without her husband, Crown Prince Naruhito, check out of the ranks of Japanese royalty until the quality of her life improves. Royals in Japan are people of privilege, but without independence. Masako, until her marriage, was nothing if not an independent woman. It's a bad fit.

A woman of style and grace as well as education, Masako has found her many assets and abilities hemmed in by a stick-in-the-mud bureaucracy that aims to assure royal succession - one still governed by 19th century standards of a woman's place.

This talented woman has become a bird in a gilded cage. Palace officials say she suffers from "an adjustment disorder." Adjustment indeed. The word assumes that she is out of synch, rather than the system that demands her compliance.

When Masako, now 40, married Naruhito, second in line to the throne, she fell under the iron grip of Japan's Imperial Household Agency. It orders all facets of her life, including intrusive fertility treatments that aim to produce a male heir. So far, she has had a miscarriage, and borne a daughter, Aiko, who is now 2.

Japan's Chrysanthemum Throne has survived 125 generations of male-only succession, relying prior to World War II on concubines to produce the required boy babies. The entire royal family has not produced a son in 38 years. The household agency wants Masako to change that.

Naruhito has publicly attacked palace officials who restrict his wife, saying that they have denied her character. He is absolutely right, but he needs to do more than just whine.

As a modern, sophisticated husband, he should demand, and demand again, a host of restrictions on the household agency. Royals shouldn't have to kowtow to the help. He must also see to changing the male-only succession.

In the modern world, where people of both genders aspire to contribute as equals, Masako's treatment is as medieval and barbaric as it is offensive. Not only outsiders find it so. A poll indicates that 80 percent of Japanese want the succession law revised so, absent a prince, a princess could rule.

Japan can't imagine itself without an imperial family, but it has yet to figure out how to provide it in a modern context.

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