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Opinion

Empress Masako can shine as a role model for Japanese women

Her curtailed career and personal pressures reflect real-world struggles

Empress Masako can shine in many ways. (Photo by Kei Higuchi)

Cheered by the crowd lining the street, the black convertible carrying the new Emperor Naruhito and Empress Masako glided through the sunny Tokyo streets on November 10 as part of the coronation celebrations.

It was deja vu: 26 years earlier, Princess Masako and her imperial groom similarly celebrated their marriage in June 1993.

The tiara sparkled again. The smiling Empress looked as radiant at 55 as she did at 29. But between the two parades, the Empress had been through well-publicized dark times. There was an unimaginable amount of pressure to bear an heir to the throne, and then after she finally had Princess Aiko in 2001, her inability to perform her official duties because of adjustment disorder diagnosed in 2014 invited criticism.

But now, with her only daughter grown into a young adult, she is free from the pressing tasks of motherhood. She appears more comfortable with her public duties. As Empress, she can step out of the shadow of her highly popular mother-in-law, Empress Michiko.

The 2019 enthronement of her husband therefore marks the beginning of a new phase of her life -- and an opportunity for her to become a new kind of role model.

For a country with so few high-profile senior women in any sphere, it is especially meaningful to have Empress Masako as a vibrant symbol of modern Japanese women -- but earlier in her life she faced the same challenges as many women of her cohort.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Law, implemented in 1986, only a year before Empress Masako started her diplomatic career, officially allowed women to work shoulder-to-shoulder with men.

In her net four years at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where she was admitted as one of the three women out of 28 fledging career diplomats, she was known to burn midnight oil. Highlights included a high-profile role, such as assisting conversation between the then Secretary of State James Baker and Japanese ministers as interpreter.

Masako Owada, standing, attends as an interpreter at a meeting of then U.S. Secretary of State James Baker, left, with former Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita, center, in Tokyo in November 1991.   © AP

Still, the social expectation remained that women took care of family. Women therefore were confronted with the binary choice of family or work. Many, despite having an ambitious career straight out of university, had to opt out of the mainstream once they married. This is what happened to Princess Masako, perhaps inevitably as she became a member of the imperial family. Her decision closed the door on her future as career diplomat.

Her story resonates with many women of her generation.  In a 2019 survey of 5,000 women in their forties and fifties, a third recounted the original desire to have both career and family without any breaks, and of those less than a third claimed to have achieved both. A majority had to give up one or the other, often career, against their will.

While working mothers have become the norm, many women constantly fight to juggle family and career. It is not only a question of time management, but an emotional fight to balance compliance with social expectations and fulfilling individual ambitions.

This explains the mysterious lack of senior-ranking women in Japanese society after 30 some years of legally having equal opportunities, even as women now make up 45% of the workforce in Japan. While the on-the-ground acceptance of gender equality has dramatically improved in the recent years, the lack of senior role models continues to be a challenge.

Empress Masako's mother-in-law reflected her times too. Empress Michiko was also a commoner who married into the family following a well-chronicled tennis-court romance with the now retired Emperor.

Emperor Akihito, seated third from left, and Empress Michiko, seated fourth from left, with their family members, pictured on December 3, 2018. (Handout photo from Imperial Household Agency)

While she garnered much respect and certainly had her own voice, she also embodied the perfect wife and mother of her times in the postwar nuclear family. Unlike Empress Masako, she did not work between graduation and her royal marriage.

Members of the imperial family must not participate in politics. That said, as symbols of Japan they exert a great influence in shaping the country's image -- so much so that there is a word in Japanese for imperial diplomacy, koshitsu-gaiko.

Even within these constraints, Empress Masako can shine in many ways. The international environment will be a natural stage for her. With her diplomatic skills and experience, there is no doubt she will embody grace and tact.

Interestingly, gender equality has already been achieved for Japanese officials working for international organizations. As of 2019 the Ministry of Foreign Affairs reported 44 women professionals working for the U.N., more than half the total 75 Japanese staff. Empress Masako is an inspiring figure representing globally-minded Japanese professional women.

Domestically, she can be a role model for a broad spectrum of women. Her resilience after overcoming the dark times especially gives hope to the women of the "lost generation," those between their mid-thirties to mid-forties whose careers were disrupted by Japan's financial doldrums.

Because of unexpected life events, a career may not be a straight line nor does it have to be. Hang in there, and your time will come again -- this is the message that Empress Masako in her new phase can convey.

Twenty-six years ago, Princess Masako was a breath of fresh air as a young career woman marrying into the most traditional family in Japan. Today, Empress Masako is again the fresh face of the modernized imperial family, embodying the resilience and vibrancy of Japanese women.

Nobuko Kobayashi is Ernst & Young -- Japan -- transaction advisory services managing director and partner. The views reflected in this article are the views of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the global EY organization or its member firms.

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