Recovering crown princess headed for first official overseas visit in 11 years

April 26, 2013


After spending nearly half of her 20 years of marriage under treatment for emotional distress, Crown Princess Masako will embark on an official trip overseas to the Netherlands that may signal she is regaining her health.

It will mark the first time in 11 years that Masako has made an official visit overseas. During that time, she has largely remained out of the public eye, reportedly dealing with the emotional difficulties of adjusting to being a member of the imperial family.

On April 28, Masako and Crown Prince Naruhito will leave on an official trip to the Netherlands, a country that Masako has visited in the past and has brought her great joy and happiness.

The couple will attend the April 30 coronation of Willem-Alexander, Prince of Orange, as he ascends to the Dutch throne. The significant trip began with a simple phone call.

"The caller was Princess Maxima, the wife of Willem-Alexander, who will soon become the new king," said a source in the Imperial Household Agency. "Maxima asked Masako to attend the investiture ceremony on April 30."

The last time Masako went abroad was for a two-week private trip to the Netherlands in August 2006, with Naruhito, and their daughter, Princess Aiko. They were invited by Queen Beatrix and spent two weeks at a retreat in Apeldoorn, in part to provide a rest for Masako. The Imperial Household Agency source said Masako was very grateful for that break.

Married to the crown prince since 1993, the last official overseas trip for Masako was in December 2002, a year after Aiko was born. In July 2004, the Imperial Household Agency announced that Masako was suffering from an "adjustment disorder," and she entered a long period of care and treatment.

In May 2004, Naruhito stirred controversy when he said there were "developments that denied Princess Masako's career ... as well as her personality driven by her career."

His comments led to public speculation about a gap emerging between Naruhito and Masako, on the one hand, and officials of the Imperial Household Agency, and even Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko, on the other.

"Because Masako grew up abroad, graduated from Harvard University and worked as a career diplomat, it is only to be expected that she would clearly voice her opinions," said an acquaintance who has known Masako since she studied overseas. "Moreover, she was always a free-spirited and vigorous individual. I felt from the very beginning that it would be very difficult for her to enter such a closed world as the imperial household."

A source in the crown prince's household added, "After her marriage, Masako became deeply concerned about the atmosphere in the imperial household, which placed priority on suppressing one's individuality and bearing an heir. Differences arose with the emperor and empress, who were concerned about the future of the imperial family, as well as high-ranking officials of the Imperial Household Agency."

Regarding treatment for her disorder, another agency source said, "Her concerns were especially serious until the time Princess Kiko gave birth to Prince Hisahito (which reduced the pressure on Masako to have a male child as the heir to the throne). There was a period when Masako would withdraw to the second home of her family in Karuizawa. Masako spent time at the second home with her mother, Yumiko, and Aiko. A worried Naruhito would often visit. Even after returning to the crown prince's residence in Tokyo, night and day became reversed for Masako, and a period continued where she required medication. They were very dependent on (Yutaka) Ono (the doctor who heads the medical team for the crown princess)."


The crown prince's family spends every summer at the Nasu Imperial Villa in Tochigi Prefecture.

"At dusk, Masako would go for daily walks by herself, without even an attendant," according to a person at the villa. "While there are many paths within the villa grounds, the grass is tall in some areas, but she would still walk through such trails. That may have been an expression of her desire to get away from everyone."

A major turning point for Masako was the 2006 trip to the Netherlands.

The Netherlands is a special place for Masako because it is where her parents currently reside. Her father, Hisashi Owada, is currently a justice of the International Court of Justice at The Hague. He previously served as vice foreign minister, the highest bureaucratic post in the Foreign Ministry.

The crown prince's family also shares "family problems" with the Dutch royal house, arising from the special world both live in.

Hans Jacobs, a journalist who has long covered the Dutch royal family, said that Queen Beatrix's late husband, Prince Claus, was also a former career diplomat like Masako.

Claus came down with depression after joining the royal family, and there was speculation it was caused by the fact that he had to give up his career to become the husband of the queen, Jacobs said.

Maxima, who made the phone call to Masako, also had a career at a New York financial institution before she married Willem-Alexander. Maxima is originally from Argentina, and her father was a Cabinet minister when the military ruled Argentina. That background led to some criticism of Maxima from the Dutch people at the beginning of her marriage.

That background was likely a major reason why the Dutch royal family extended a helping hand when Masako faced her own emotional crisis.

"In the year after the retreat in the Netherlands, Willem-Alexander visited Japan and had dinner at the Imperial Palace with the emperor and empress," said Katsumi Iwai, a former senior staff writer at The Asahi Shimbun who covered the imperial family for many years. "At that time, he said, 'During the retreat, I was surprised at the large difference in Masako between when she was bright and happy and when she felt down.' He added, 'If there is anything I can do to help, do not hesitate to ask.' "

In November 2007, Naruhito was named honorary president of the Advisory Board on Water and Sanitation established by the secretary-general of the United Nations. Willem-Alexander was a key member of that board and had been named chairman the previous year. It is believed that Naruhito was named honorary president due to support provided by Willem-Alexander.


Willem-Alexander will take over from his mother, Beatrix, at the end of April. When the announcement was made about the coronation ceremony, concerns were raised in both the Imperial Household Agency and the Foreign Ministry even before the arrival of a formal invitation.

"There were a number of times when the issue of Masako's official overseas trip came up, but in each case, the conclusion was reached at an early stage that it would be difficult," a Foreign Ministry official said. "However, the Netherlands is special, so there was speculation that she might be able to go. In the end, a formal reply was held off until the very last minute."

An informal inquiry about an invitation was made through diplomatic channels at the beginning of March. Although a request had been made for a response by early March, no decision was reached by that time.

An acquaintance of the Owada family said, "The Owadas returned to Japan in late March and stayed for about 10 days. However, they apparently did not meet with Masako. They only said, 'Diplomatic decisions are made in a realm beyond our reach. There is not much that we can say.' "

A formal invitation arrived on April 1, but still no decision had been made.

Frustrated at the lack of a decision, Noriyuki Kazaoka, grand steward of the Imperial Household Agency, said on April 11, "The deadline for responding to the Netherlands has been greatly exceeded, so there is a need to make a decision as soon as possible."

However, a source at the crown prince's household said, "Masako became more glum as a result of that comment."

Unlike the previous visit to the Netherlands, the coronation ceremony will be attended by royalty and heads of state from around the world. Arrangements would have to be made for hotel reservations for Naruhito and Masako because of the large number of visiting dignitaries.

"They will be staying at a hotel in Amsterdam that is often used by the imperial family," a Foreign Ministry source said. "We have heard that dignitaries from about 30 nations have made reservations at that hotel. While the Foreign Ministry had reserved rooms from an early stage, if Masako was to accompany Naruhito, additional rooms would be required for her attendants. We were also worried about the high cancellation fees."

Although a decision was finally made to have Masako accompany Naruhito, she will only attend the coronation ceremony and reception.

A journalist covering the Imperial Household Agency said, "In announcing the trip to the Netherlands, Kyoji Komachi, grand master of the crown prince's household, made it clear that it would be difficult for Masako to attend all the planned events."

A spring garden party hosted by the emperor and empress was held on April 18 at the Akasaka Imperial Gardens immediately after the decision was made on the Netherlands trip. Masako did not attend that gathering.

A former Imperial Household Agency official said, "Masako feels a very heavy burden when she has to attend an event where she will be seen by many people, as well as Shinto ceremonies. When imperial family members go abroad, even for private trips, they go to the imperial palace to conduct religious rituals. However, this time, only Naruhito will go. While there may arise criticism over such a situation, one reason that Masako likely decided to go to the Netherlands is Aiko's growth."

Masako had been worried for many years about Aiko's difficulties in attending school. However, that problem has all but been resolved.

An event was held on April 14 at Gakushuin University where Naruhito and Masako seemed to be very pleased at how much Aiko had grown.

One participant said, "From her second-floor seat, Masako gazed at Aiko through binoculars, and she would smile and whisper something to Naruhito. Masako seemed to be doing very well. When Naruhito and Aiko performed on their musical instruments together for the first time in a large ensemble, Masako leaned forward in her seat to watch, and she happily clapped her hands in rhythm with the music."

Aiko first developed problems attending school in March 2010, and it would take two and a half years to resolve them. During that period, Masako accompanied Aiko to and from school on an almost daily basis, and she also observed her classes.

Aiko gradually returned to a more normal school life after she joined the school orchestra. That brought relief to her parents.

"The orchestra tends to have its practices in the morning before school starts, and even now, Aiko does not attend many practices. She apparently practices at home," said a parent whose child attends Gakushuin Primary School. "She may be shy because she finds it difficult to greet those who are not her close friends. However, since she will be in the sixth grade this year, there may be gradual changes in those areas."

With consideration also being given for a visit to Spain, there are hopes that the trip to the Netherlands will help Masako return to a happier life.

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Crown Prince Naruhito and Crown Princess Masako on March 5 (Pool)

Crown Prince Naruhito and Crown Princess Masako on March 5 (Pool)

  • Crown Prince Naruhito and Crown Princess Masako on March 5 (Pool)
  • Crown Princess Masako and her daughter, Princess Aiko, on March 26 (Pool)

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