TOKYO -- Wanted: intelligent, attractive, athletic and discreet young Japanese woman from a leading business, diplomatic or academic family; fluent in English and also, ideally, French; with no ex-boyfriends. Must be no taller, in heels, than 5 feet 4 and no older than 25. Should be prepared to give up considerable freedom in Japan in exchange for ladies-in-waiting, overseas travel and opportunities to meet world leaders. Independent-minded career women acceptable, but no daughters of politicians, please.

The Japanese are worrying these days about war, political infighting among would-be prime ministers and the slump in the Tokyo stock market. But from time to time, their attention is diverted by another pressing issue. Crown Prince Naruhito, the 30-year-old future emperor of Japan, cannot find a wife.

As Naruhito's 31st birthday and formal investiture as crown prince approach next month, the Japanese press is in a lather of speculation over who, if anyone, will become his bride and Japan's future empress.

No one has a clue who she might be, but that hasn't stopped Japan's salacious weekly magazines and lowbrow television shows from filling their pages and programs with reports of possible brides. Reporters have set up camp outside the homes of the leading "candidates" and have pestered their friends and family for interviews. One top "candidate," Naoko Taki, a 21-year-old college student and a friend of Naruhito's younger sister, was chased by cameras every time she walked out her front door. Things got so bad that she once didn't go out for three days. Finally, her desperate mother implored the press: "Naoko is terribly distressed. If any more fuss is made, she will be scarred physically and mentally, and may even lose her will to live." The press, mindful that this is the hottest story in Japan, ignored her.

Last week, Shin-ichi Nakazawa, a leading anthropologist, tried to explain why the royal bride hunt has people so transfixed. "The only real significance the imperial family has in the modern world is based on blood bondage -- the continuity from father to son," he said. "So the bride problem is very important. To get married and have a son is a condition for continuity."

Six years ago, while a student at Oxford, Naruhito laid out his marriage plans and soon lived to regret it. "It is better if I marry before I become 30 years old, is it not?" he told reporters at a press conference in London. Last year, on his 30th birthday, he had to backpedal and say that he meant 30 only as a "yardstick" age. "I do not intend to become pessimistic about this problem at all," he said.

He may not be, but the palace is certainly worried. The prince's chamberlains and top officials of the Imperial Household Agency, the intractable, obsessively secretive group of 1,100 bureaucrats and aristocrats who run the lives of the imperial family, are said to be on an all-points search for suitable women from whom the crown prince may choose. "It is everyone's wish that a bride be selected as soon as possible," a palace chamberlain in the office of the crown prince said last week. The royal family remains optimistic, and places great faith in Naruhito's ability to decide for himself.

Conjecture about possible brides for Naruhito dates back more than a decade, ever since the summer day in 1980 when he was spotted on a tennis court with the daughter of the president of a Japanese securities firm. Some 70 women have been mentioned over the years; in recent weeks the press has narrowed its focus to five or six. Among them is an old standby, Masako Owada, a 1985 Harvard graduate and an official at the Second North America Division of the Japanese Foreign Ministry. She is one of the few candidates who is actually said to have been invited several times by Naruhito to his palace. Owada does not talk to the press, but she does pick up her own telephone. "I have nothing to do with this issue," she said last week, in a polite, superb British accent. She did say, however, that the press speculation was "overheated." Recent gossip among palace watchers has it that Owada is in fact out of the running, but others maintain she is still a possibility and that her refusal to talk to the press -- an interview would be suicide -- indicates as much.

But who knows? The speculation has reached absurd levels. On one recent afternoon, Toshiaki Kawahara, a courtly, white-haired journalist who has written 15 books on the imperial family, went into great detail on the sterling attributes of a current candidate who is all the rage in the press. The woman, he said, is a graduate of Tokyo's Sacred Heart University -- the current Empress Michiko's alma mater -- and is both intelligent and beautiful. She skis, is not too tall (the crown prince is only 5 feet 4) and is related to one of the 11 Mitsui families that built the industrial cartel of the same name. Her family has money, but not too much, and a great tradition of scholarship.

So what is the problem? Why is Naruhito dragging his heels? "It seems," says Kawahara, "that he has not met her."

The larger question, of course, is why it should prove so difficult for the most eligible bachelor in Japan to find a wife. Imperial family watchers say several elements are at work here, among them:

The Michiko Factor. The current Empress Michiko, wife of Emperor Akihito, was the first non-royal to marry into the imperial family. Tales of her years of unhappiness have scared off candidates afraid of the same torment. From the start, Michiko was criticized by her mother-in-law and a chief lady-in-waiting as an unworthy commoner who dared to breast-feed her infant son and carry him in public. In 1963, she was hospitalized for a first-trimester abortion, which, according to news reports quoting Michiko's doctor at the time, was performed because the fetus was "abnormal." Four months later, the Imperial Household Agency was forced to publicly deny widespread reports in Tokyo that Michiko had suffered a nervous breakdown.

These days Michiko has come into her own, and many palace observers say that the candidates' fears of imperial torment are unwarranted. Michiko, they say, would be a loving, understanding mother-in-law, and would be the one person who would insure that the crown princess not suffer as she did.

The "Old Daddy" Factor. By all accounts, the crown prince is a mature and dignified young man. (His younger brother, Prince Akishino, who last year married the wildly popular commoner Kiko Kawashima, is said to be haughty and headstrong.) At Oxford, Naruhito wrote a thesis on the Thames River, and these days is researching transportation in medieval Japan at Tokyo's Gakushuin University. He likes mountain climbing, tennis and playing the viola. But he is nearly 31. The elite women mentioned as candidates are in their early twenties, and very choosy. Reporters regularly covering Naruhito claim that such women find a 31-year-old, even if he is the crown prince, a boring "ojin," which is colloquial Japanese for "Old Daddy." This may not make sense, but that's what the reporters say.

The Rich Girl Factor. Most young women worthy of mention as candidates come from such prominent, wealthy families that they could easily marry into a life more luxurious and less confining than the one they would lead at the palace. The Japanese imperial family has a relatively modest existence; certainly the crown prince's "palace," an undistinguished Western-style house built of concrete about a three-minute walk from his parents' home on the grounds of a large parklike area in central Tokyo, is not lavish.

"Thirty years ago," says Minoru Hamao, a former chamberlain to Emperor Akihito when he was crown crince, "there was still a general feeling in Japan that it was such an honor to become a member of the imperial family. But now many young girls don't care so much about that. They care about losing their freedom."

The Catch-22 is that any woman desperate to marry the crown prince -- the daughter, say, of a top operator in Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party, who would be expected to use the imperial family for political gain -- is unacceptable to the palace. Nonetheless, one gossipy weekly recently floated the name of the daughter of Ryutaro Hashimoto, Japan's powerful finance minister, as a candidate, complete with a denial from the mother. "Such things do not exist at all," she told the magazine.

Some palace watchers find it strange that more elite young women are not interested. The job of empress offers fame and behind-the-scenes power, of course, but also something that few other women in Japan have: time with their husbands. Most Japanese salarymen work from dawn to midnight six days a week, then spend Sunday either comatose at home or out playing golf. The emperor and empress have better hours, and they work as a team.

The Stubbornness Factor. Although the Imperial Household Agency is searching frantically, the crown prince still says he is determined to fall in love on his own. He has been inspired by his own parents, who say they met by chance on a tennis court. (To this day, the members of the 1950s Imperial Household Agency insist the meeting was arranged.) Whatever the case, nobody denies that after centuries of arranged royal marriages Michiko and Akihito were the first to fall in love.

But Naruhito leads a cloistered life. He can't date, or go to restaurants and nightclubs. "He complained a lot, particularly after he came back from Oxford," said Akira Hashimoto, a childhood friend of the emperor. "He said he had no opportunities in Japan to meet younger women." The crown prince instead has to rely on his mother to invite suitable women to family concerts at the palace, or on his royal relatives to hold small private parties.

The Imperial Household is well aware of his feelings, and so must engage in delicate work. According to a Japanese newspaper reporter who regularly covers him, last year the agency found an excellent candidate at Gakushuin University. Since she had weekly lunch meetings with a professor and a group of students there, the Imperial Household arranged to have the crown prince invited. Although he knew what was going on, the young woman at first did not. But she figured it out after he began turning up week after week, and quickly withdrew, the reporter says, in fright.

So the Japanese continue to wait, and hope. Meanwhile, at least one person, the anthropologist Shin-ichi Nakazawa, has something of a solution. He knows that it is extravagantly radical, and that almost no one in the country agrees with him. But that's why he likes it. "The crown prince doesn't have to get married," he says. "The son of his brother could become the next emperor. Why can't he be a bachelor emperor?"

Special correspondent Shigehiko Togo contributed to this report.