-- Within the aged cedar walls of the Imperial Palace, Princess Masako of Japan, clad in a binding ceremonial kimono, watched as her father-in-law, Emperor Akihito, presided over a Shinto blessing of the autumn harvest.
Fittingly held in the same lacquered shrine where she wed Crown Prince Naruhito a decade earlier, the October event, as recounted by a member of the Imperial Household Agency, was Masako's last palace function before her withdrawal from official life in December. Since then, the American-educated former diplomat has been grappling with a stress-related skin disorder, mental exhaustion and -- by some accounts -- perhaps clinical depression. Headlines and royal watchers portray her as a virtual hostage to her foremost imperial duty: bearing a male heir to the Chrysanthemum Throne, the oldest hereditary monarchy on Earth.
Masako's case has been seen in Japan as part of the struggle for women's rights in the country's men-first culture. Reminiscent of another storybook princess -- Diana, of Wales -- Masako's life has faded from fable to misfortune. In her defense, her husband, the crown prince, made a stunning break from imperial discretion last month, blasting the courtiers who control most aspects of the couple's lives for having "nullified her career as well as her character."
The prince's outburst came after the powerful Imperial Household Agency blocked Masako's attempt to join her husband on an official European tour last month so she could rest and improve her health. According to sources familiar with palace events, the household courtiers hope the 40-year-old princess can regain her strength in part to undergo fertility treatments.
This week, the government acknowledged pressure on Masako and the crown prince. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi said during an election debate that the royals "are overly busy with their official duties. . . . They have no freedom." After that, Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiroyuki Hosada said at a news conference that the imperial household "will consider the matter."
The Imperial Household Agency, comprising bureaucrats and servants to the emperor and his household, has been in existence since the 8th century. It is a government agency under the prime minister's office and directs protocol and other functions related to the royal family. Its national influence diminished after Japan's defeat in World War II. Nevertheless, its top officials continue to wield considerable influence over the lives of the imperial family.
Toshiya Matsuzaki, 66, a Tokyo-based commentator on the imperial family who has followed them for 45 years, said Masako had essentially become a prisoner: "There is a great outpouring of sympathy for this woman, a modern woman, a woman educated in America and who is finding it very difficult to adjust to the demands and peculiarities of Japanese imperial court life. One has the feeling that she is suffering under the strain."
Masako, among other expectations, is under pressure from the courtiers to bear a male heir.
Her disappearance from the public eye and the public support for her plight have cast a spotlight on the secretive imperial family.
Since World War II, when Emperor Hirohito was considered divine, the monarchy has become a symbolic institution of limited importance to Japanese society. But the case of Masako -- a Harvard graduate with a penchant for softball, world travel and intellectual debate -- has brought unwelcome publicity. In a country where many youths do not even know her husband's name, Masako has became a household word, particularly among women.
Eleven years after her marriage and 21/2 years after she gave birth to the royal couple's daughter, Aiko, Masako is now portrayed by close observers as defeated and distressed by limitations on her movements.
The joy of the imperial baby was celebrated in Japan as desperately needed good news after a decade-long economic slump. But the reaction was muted in the Imperial Household Agency -- the powerful courtiers appointed by the prime minister's office. The simple fact remained: Aiko was not a boy.
In a recent open note to the nation, Masako -- who had lived in Moscow, New York and the Boston area and who many expected to become a notable ambassador or politician -- criticized her confinement. "Since the wedding more than 10 years ago, I have made my utmost effort in an unfamiliar environment under heavy pressure," she wrote. Her illness "was a result of the accumulated exhaustion, mental and physical, of all those years."
Masako's struggle for more independence is intertwined with a campaign to change male-succession laws so that Aiko can eventually ascend the throne. Some traditionalists argue, however, that a male heir remains key to preserving Japan's ancient imperial tradition.
"The issue with Masako and Aiko is really about discrimination against women and women's rights, an issue that Japan finally needs to confront as a modern society," said Yoko Komiyama, a national legislator from Japan's largest opposition party, the Democratic Party. The party's platform for upper house elections next month calls for allowing empresses to reign.
Japanese women trail their U.S. and European counterparts in the quest for equality, statistics show. Many Japanese women are still expected to leave their jobs after marriage, especially after childbirth. The percentage of women elected to the Diet, Japan's parliament, stands at 7.3 percent, roughly half the comparable percentage in the United States and almost five times less than in Germany.
Worse, Japanese women say, are the little indignities. Rural grandparents in particular still stress to a new wife the importance of bearing a male son. During divorces in some families, it is not unusual for a father to fight for custody of his sons, but not his daughters. Female office workers still complain of having to serve coffee and tea for their male co-workers.
But younger women in Japan, in particular, are rebelling by delaying childbirth and having fewer children. That is a big reason, experts say, for a big drop in the national birthrate, now among the lowest in the world. This year, Japan's fertility rate fell to a record low of 1.29 children per woman -- compared with 2.13 in the United States, according to government statistics.
Reiko Yokoi, 64, a housewife in Nagoya, posted a message on a feminist Web site recently to express her anger at Masako's treatment. In a telephone interview afterward, she lauded the crown prince for rallying to the defense of his wife.
"I had to go through life with a man who felt he could be bossy, who was very traditional about the role of a woman and who told me that it wasn't feminine when I asked questions about politics or economics," said Yokoi, whose husband is a retired business executive. "That is no life for any young woman, and especially not for a modern woman like Masako. It tears at my heart to think what they are doing to her."
Masako initially turned down Naruhito's marriage proposal. Her friends were shocked when she changed her mind and accepted the highly traditional role that would one day make her empress. Her marriage to the baby-faced Naruhito also came over the objections of some in the court who felt she had been tainted by her life in America.
As crown princess, Masako was forced to learn and speak in a formal form of Japanese unique to the imperial family, walk a half step behind her husband and learn hundreds of Shinto rituals for both public and palace life. But bearing a son was always her primary duty. After eight years of marriage, she gave birth to Aiko in December 2001.
Japan has had eight reigning empresses among 125 rulers in the imperial family genealogy, but scholars see them as temporary solutions. Their children were not permitted to reign; they were followed by their next closest male relatives. The Imperial House Act in 1889 prohibited female succession altogether.
One palace reporter who works for a major Japanese news outlet and who spoke on the condition of anonymity summed up the male-line argument like this: "The imperial successor is like a racehorse; it doesn't matter who the mother is."
The prince, however, in his recent and highly rare public chiding of Imperial Household Agency leaders -- whom he cannot fire under unspoken Japanese codes -- delivered an impassioned plea that many interpreted as a call to allow Aiko to be his heir. The agency has indeed launched a study into how the imperial rituals could be modified for a female monarch, according to sources close to the agency.
But the courtiers and forces in Japanese politics are still pushing for a continuation of the male-line system, and the pressure on Masako has built. Last June, Toshio Yuasa, the agency's director general, told the public that "frankly speaking, as grand steward of the Imperial Household, I want them to have another child." Last December, he went a step further, calling for Naruhito's younger brother, Prince Akishino, who has two daughters, to attempt to have a third child.
Soon after that, Masako, her long hair cut into a bob, her once-full cheeks drawn thin, withdrew from public life. She was briefly hospitalized for stress-related shingles. She spent time with her mother at a mountain retreat. But when she returned to Tokyo last April, she was still deemed unfit for travel and her condition, according to Imperial Household Agency officials, has not improved.
Her convalescence had been expected to last until the spring, but she remains in seclusion, spending her days resting in central Tokyo's Togu Palace -- a fortress-like 1960s study in Japanese minimalism with flat, step-like roofs. It houses soothing art such as a silver screen of seven flying cranes drawn by noted Japanese artist Kenji Yoshioka.
For a woman who herself once savored the freedom of flying, it has become, many say, a gilded cage.
Special correspondent Sachiko Sakamaki contributed to this report.