Princess or Prisoner?

updated 06/07/2004 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/07/2004 AT 01:00 AM EDT

For 125 unbroken generations, the Japanese royal family has been governed by rigid protocol. On May 10 a crack appeared in the lacquer. At a press conference before a solo European trip, Japan's Crown Prince Naruhito, 44, said his wife, Princess Masako, 40, had been pushed to the breaking point by officials anxious for her to produce a male heir. Since suffering a stress-induced case of facial shingles six months ago, the prince said, his Harvard-educated wife had been resting in seclusion, "completely exhausted" from trying to fit into the royal household, which he charged had "nullified her career and nullified her character."

Naruhito's words were an attack on Japan's hidebound Imperial Household Agency (IHA), which controls royal life, from the Shinto ceremonies the family performs to access to private phone lines. "When the royal family makes public visits, they cannot even go to the bathroom when they please," says Isao Tokoro, an expert on the monarchy. "If you enter that environment at the age of 30, it can be very difficult."

So it was for Masako, the daughter of a diplomat who went to high school in Boston. A rising star in Japan's foreign ministry, she disappeared behind palace walls soon after marrying Naruhito in 1993. After a 1999 miscarriage, she gave birth to a daughter, Aiko, 2, reportedly with the aid of fertility treatments in 2001, but by law, only males may inherit Japan's throne. "The IHA put her under enormous pressure to conceive a male heir," says journalist Yasushi Kunoh, who thinks Naruhito's outburst may be an attempt to reform the law, a change most Japanese support. Now he certainly has the palace's attention. Said IHA chief Toshio Yuasa: "When the crown prince comes back, I want to meet him directly, listen to his true intentions and improve what I can.' "

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