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Who is Empress Masako of Japan?

Born Masako Owada (or Owada Masako according to Asian naming customs where the family name is placed before the given name), she was born on 9 December 1963 in Tokyo’s Toranomon Hospital to Yumiko Egashira and Hisashi Owada – the latter being a former diplomat and former judge on the International Court of Justice.

Masako has two younger siblings – twin sisters, Setsuko and Reiko.

At the age of two, Masako moved with her family to Moscow, Russia, where she began school at Detskiysad No. 1127 daycare; the family moved when she was five to New York City where she started kindergarten at New York City public kindergarten No. 81. By 1971, they had returned to their native Japan with Masako’s father working for the Foreign Ministry. The family resided with Masako’s maternal grandparents during this time.

Masako then entered the Roman Catholic all-girls school, Futaba Gakuen, but only after failing an entrance exam and attending two other schools in just two short weeks. She was rather active in the school learning to play piano and tennis and joined the handicrafts club. She was also on the softball team, playing third base, and lead the team to district championships. Masako also began to learn French and German, her fourth and fifth languages (after already learning Japanese, English and Russian).

The family would move again in 1979 to Boston, Massachusetts, giving Masako time to improve her English skills while in her second year of senior high school. Her father, at the time, was a guest professor at Harvard University’s Centre for International Affairs in international law. In 1981, she graduated from Belmont High School after being highly active in various organisations and sports. Later that same year, she entered Harvard University/Radcliffe College in the Economics Department; Masako, who remained in Boston when her father was sent to Moscow, would go on to become chairman of the Japan Society. During this time, she also volunteered at the Japanese consul in Boston.

Masako graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in economics, magna cum laude, in 1985. She then returned to Japan to study law for six months at the University of Tokyo – in preparation for the entrance exam for the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs. She would be one of 28 (out of 800) to pass.

Masako would become highly successful as a diplomat and was selected by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to study two years abroad to obtain her master’s degree. She enrolled at Balliol College, Oxford but did not finish her thesis. After two years, she returned to Japan in 1990.

It was during her preparations at the University of Tokyo that she first met Crown Prince Naruhito at a tea for Spain’s Infanta Elena in 1986. The Crown Prince was smitten and met with her several times over the next few weeks and stayed interested even while she studied in the United Kingdom. She, however, did not want to marry him as she did not want to give up her promising diplomatic career or lose her freedom.

After Naruhito proposed for the third time, she accepted after being convinced her role as a royal would be like a diplomat. Their engagement was announced on 19 January 1993 by the Imperial Household Council, and the official engagement ceremony was held on 12 April 1993. Their traditional wedding ceremony took place on 9 June 1993 with intense media coverage of their new princess.

Masako with the Imperial Family in 2011. By Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan –, CC BY 4.0,

In 1999, her first pregnancy was announced, but it tragically ended in miscarriage. Two years later, she gave birth to her and Naruhito’s only child, Aiko, Princess Toshi on 1 December 2001 in the Imperial Household Agency Hospital. As Japanese law does not allow for women to ascend the throne, Aiko cannot succeed her father. This caused pressure on Crown Princess Masako, and many blame this stress on her subsequent health problems.

Since 2002, a year after Princess Aiko’s birth, then-Crown Princess Masako has remained primarily out of the public eye due to health reasons. In 2004, she was diagnosed with adjustment disorder and received treatment. Then-Crown Prince Naruhito requested patience and understanding from the people throughout her battle, explaining she was working hard to do what she could to help others. By 2012, she released a statement in time for her 49th birthday to thank the Japanese people for their support.

As it was announced that Emperor Akihito was to abdicate in April 2019, Masako has slowly been seen more in public – no doubt in preparation for her future role as the Empress consort. In November 2018, she attended the bi-annual garden party for the entire engagement after leaving quite early in years prior.

The Empress on the day of the Enthronement Ceremony, 22 October 2019. NHK/Fair Use

Masako became Empress Masako on 1 May 2019 when her husband ascended the throne. Naruhito’s younger brother, Fumihito, Prince Akishino, has taken on the role of heir since Masako and Naruhito’s daughter is not allowed in the line of succession. Fumihito’s only son, Prince Hisahito is expected to reign after his uncle and father. It remains to be seen if the Japanese government will discuss and change the rules to allow women to inherit the throne.

About author

Brittani is from Tennessee, USA. She is a political scientist and historian after graduating with a degree in the topics from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, in December 2014. She also holds a master's degree from Northeastern University. She enjoys reading and researching all things regarding the royals of the world. She's been researching, reading, and writing on royalty for over a decade. She became Europe Editor in October 2016, and then Deputy Editor in January 2019, and has been featured on several podcasts, radio shows, news broadcasts and websites including Global News Canada, ABC News Australia, WION India and BBC World News.