Photo/IllutrationEmpress Masako waves while entering the Imperial Palace on May 1. (Yasuhiro Sugimoto)

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The last garden party of the Heisei Era (1989-2019) held at the Akasaka Estate in November was the first in 15 years in which then Crown Princess Masako took part until the very end.

She wore a kimono made from cloth that had been presented to her by then Empress Michiko. It was likely the first time Masako wore that kimono.

I felt that by choosing to wear that kimono to the garden party, Masako was trying to express her intention of carrying on what Michiko had done.

I first met Masako in late 1987 when I covered a number of female central government bureaucrats who had formed an informal group among those who entered ministries at the same time.

She was 24 at the time and had been assigned to the Economic Affairs Bureau of the Foreign Ministry after passing the exam to enter the ministry but before she graduated from the Law Faculty of the University of Tokyo.

After that first contact, I had on occasion had lunch with her as well as taking in movies together.

Because her father had also been a career diplomat, Masako spent part of her childhood in the former Soviet Union and the United States. She had already graduated from Harvard University, but she never tried to show off her obvious intellectual prowess.

Our conversations were filled with humor, and she laughed a lot. But as a Foreign Ministry official she worked long hours and once jokingly said, "If I return home at 2 a.m., my mother will often say to me 'You're early today.' "

She often returned to work at the Foreign Ministry after we had dinner, but on those occasions she bought ice cream for her colleagues who were still at the office.

That was a time when the media was already targeting her as a possible future crown princess. She had, in fact, been invited by then Crown Prince Naruhito to the Imperial Palace as well as other locations associated with the imperial household.

While she seemed to have positive feelings for Naruhito, she also appeared to be less than forward-looking about marriage to him because she often said she entered the Foreign Ministry because there was work there she wanted to do.

Naruhito did not go so far as to propose to Masako at that time apparently because of some opposition by those who raised concerns about the fact that her grandfather once served as president and chairman of Chisso Corp., the company whose mercury caused the debilitating Minamata disease.

CONVINCED BY THEIR JOINT NEWS CONFERENCE

In the summer of 1988, Masako went to Britain to study at Oxford University as part of a Foreign Ministry training program. In November 1989, I stopped by there when I was returning from a business trip to see how she was doing.

We dined together for the first time in over a year, and I heard about her life in Britain. She appeared to be thoroughly exhausted by the media frenzy that had followed her to Britain. I remember she said something to the effect that it would be difficult for the crown prince to date a woman in order to think about marriage because of all the fuss that was being made.

Fast forward a few years to late 1992 when I was stunned to hear that she had accepted Naruhito's marriage proposal.

I called her at home, but she only said, "I have nothing to say" and ended the call.

However, when I saw her and Naruhito in the joint news conference after their proposal was announced any doubts I had were erased.

Masako explained the many words from Naruhito that made a deep impression on her and she went on to say, "I began to feel that if I could do so, I wanted to make (Naruhito) happy."

She had chosen the course of becoming the crown princess because she had fallen in love with Naruhito.

After their marriage, Naruhito guided Masako to various aspects of his world. They went together to a gathering of classmates from Gakushuin Kindergarten, which he had attended. Photos from that occasion show a laughing couple seemingly enjoying themselves.

About a year after their marriage in 1993, they climbed a mountain in the Okutama region in western Tokyo. Naruhito took her mountain climbing to various areas, including Nasu in Tochigi Prefecture. Naruhito wrote articles for a mountain climbing magazine, and Masako provided photos of flowers they had encountered.

I remember being very surprised when I read an article in which Naruhito wrote, "I hope to discover new pleasures to mountain climbing in the future with my wife."

Imperial family members rarely use the word "wife" when referring to their spouses. I thought his use of that expression was a sign of his happiness.

SERVING AS AN 'EMBANKMENT' FOR HIS 'WIFE'

But eventually Masako would develop health problems.

Although Princess Aiko was born in late 2001, Masako broke down in tears at the news conference held on that occasion. Her health further declined, making it more difficult for her to carry out her public duties.

The imperial household is a unique world of tradition and old habits as well as curious eyes. As crown princess, there were likely strong expectations that Masako would bear a son. But the birth of their first child eight years after their marriage was a daughter, and Masako may have been deeply hurt that there was not more genuine joy at the birth.

There have long been reports that Michiko also suffered as well because she also joined the imperial household from a commoner family.

What came to my mind was a scene broadcast on TV when Emperor Hirohito and Empress Nagako were departing for the United States. The Empress Kojun, as she was known after the death of Hirohito, was seen walking in front of Michiko without the slightest sign of acknowledgement.

A number of people told me that Masako experienced similar slights. For example, when meeting with foreign dignitaries on state visits to Japan, Masako was the only member of the imperial family not introduced on one occasion.

One source who had knowledge of such occasions said, "Masako was deeply hurt by such experiences."

Masako was hospitalized for shingles in December 2003, and even after she left the hospital, she required extended rest.

In May 2004, Naruhito held a news conference in which he made reference to "actions that negated Masako's career and personality."

The news conference was held about six months after the bad experience felt by Masako and was a time when her health was at its lowest point.

Naruhito's remark was criticized by some, but I took it as his determination to serve as an "embankment" to protect his "wife" who appeared to be collapsing before his very eyes. Regardless of how strong the winds that subsequently blew, he let them flow around him like a supple willow branch and never let them break him.

Naruhito subsequently carried out without complaint the public duties assigned to him on his own, including visits to foreign nations.

CONTINUE TO HELP AND SUPPORT EACH OTHER

Although it took a considerable amount of time, Masako is on her way to recovery.

After the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami, Naruhito and Masako followed the example of Emperor Emeritus Akihito and Empress Emerita Michiko and visited areas devastated by the natural disasters as well as evacuation centers in such locations as Misato, Saitama Prefecture; Iwanuma, Miyagi Prefecture; Koriyama, Fukushima Prefecture; and Ofunato, Iwate Prefecture.

Wherever they went, the couple not only encouraged those they met, but were also encouraged by them. Many people around the nation empathized with them because they overlapped their own experiences and weaknesses with all the problems the couple has gone through.

One disaster victim who met them said, "They came to visit even though she had not completely recovered her health. I became invigorated with the feeling that I also had to do my best."

With the start of the new Reiwa Era, I hope the two will continue to help and support each other in the same natural manner they have in the past, regardless of what may await them.

I pray from the bottom of my heart that they form the closest bonds to the people of any imperial couple in the past.