Crown Princess Masako smiles with U.S Ambassador to Japan Walter Mondale, left, and his wife, Joan, during a reception in Tokyo in 1996. (AP)

Japanese royal Masako made a rare public appearance Wednesday as her crown prince husband became Emperor Naruhito making her empress. Born a commoner, Empress Masako has rarely been seen in public since marrying Naruhito in 1993. The Washington Post published this article about then-Crown Princess Masako’s visit to a fundraiser in Tokyo for her alma mater Harvard University on the front page of the Style section on June 12, 1996.

For perhaps the first time in the 2,600-year history of Japan’s imperial family, a crown princess has surfed the Net.

Crown Princess Masako leaned over, fiddled with a computer keyboard and pulled up the Harvard University home page, remarking to Harvard Provost Albert Carnesale about the amazing changes in computer technology since the days when she was just plain Masako Owada, Class of '85.

For the crown princess (who said she doesn’t have an email address), tonight’s appearance at the alumni reception before the kickoff of a $21 million Harvard fundraising drive in Japan was not only a rare venture into cyberspace, but an unusual foray into the real world.

Since her marriage to Crown Prince Naruhito in June 1993, Masako has become virtually invisible. She graduated magna cum laude from Harvard with a degree in economics, she speaks five languages and was a rising star in Japan’s elite diplomatic corps. But at 29, she abandoned her thoroughly modern life, joined the imperial family and agreed to live within strict imperial confines that date back more than two millennia.

Her appearance tonight was a coup for Harvard. The press and public here and in the United States have begun to call her “The Silent Princess.” The 32-year-old rarely speaks publicly and has given not a single interview on her own since her wedding. She has appeared at a handful of news conferences, but always with her husband, and each time all the questions and topics were essentially cleared in advance.

But tonight she schmoozed. In a room with U.S. Ambassador Walter F. Mondale and 200 Harvard big shots and donors — including former ambassadors and the heads of Mitsubishi and Toyota, major banks and hotels — the enigmatic Masako was the marquee draw.

In a cream brocade suit, holding white gloves in one hand and a grapefruit juice in the other (she never took a sip), the princess charmed and wowed the Harvard elite for 50 minutes. She told people she missed her Harvard days, that “once in a while” she saw her college friends when they came through town, that she was very interested to learn that students can electronically browse the offerings of the Harvard library from the computers in their dorm rooms.

“It was a big deal for me to meet her,” said Jerome T. Murphy, dean of the graduate school of education, who along with a few other Harvard officials was there when she accidentally clicked her way out of the Harvard home page and into NBC News.

Tonight’s cocktail party and dinner were the start of a drive to raise $21 million in Japan for Harvard, which has more than 2,000 alumni here. That money is part of a drive, begun two years ago, to raise an unprecedented $2.1 billion. Harvard hopes to raise $100 million in all of Asia.

As a measure of Harvard’s commitment to fundraising in Japan, the school sent many top officials here for tonight’s cocktail party and dinner and a seminar earlier in the day, including Provost Carnesale; Joseph S. Nye Jr., dean of the Kennedy School of Government; and Asia specialist Prof. Ezra Vogel. Nye and Vogel until recently were top [President Bill] Clinton administration appointees guiding Asian policy.

Even in that company, Masako clearly drew the most interest.

As the princess moved about the room, there were a few questions about what most people would like to know: Is Masako happy in her new life? Is she satisfied with her decision to give up her career for life as a royal? What's it like to be a princess?

Mainly she demurred and didn't directly answer the big questions, including whether her new life is tougher than she had expected. Instead, she steered conversations toward Harvard, reminiscing about her college life in Lowell House.

Nye knew Princess Masako well when she was an undergraduate. He knows her parents, and when she was in Boston they spent time together. Nye said he understands the immense pressures Masako is under.

“She’s a talented, charming woman who has to play the role of the national flag,” Nye said. “To be a living symbol must be the hardest job in the world.”

In person, Masako is so soft-spoken that it is often difficult to hear her. She seems thinner and more attractive than she does in the photos that fill Japan’s women’s magazines. She seemed more comfortable asking questions — “What did you study at Harvard?” — than answering them. She is a good listener. Asked if she cooks at home in the palace, she said she did. But asked what she cooked, she smiled and asked another question of her own.

Kathy Matsui, a vice president at Goldman Sachs and a calligraphy classmate of Masako's at Harvard, said the princess seemed subdued, perhaps holding back a little. Others speculated that her whole life now must be one of restraint. Some wondered if her appearance tonight might be the beginning of a higher profile for the princess.

Her fans hoped so. Harumi Tadakawa, a housewife who makes something of a career out of knowing where the princess is, showed up outside the Harvard event to catch a glimpse. “She is wonderful. No woman can compare.” Though she has seen Masako dozens of times in the past three years, this is only the second time Tadakawa has seen her without her husband. The other time, the princess was sitting in the back seat of a car.

Tonight, long before there was any indelicate discussion of donations to Harvard and their tax advantages, the elusive princess was gone, surrounded by security guards, heading back to the palace.

Special correspondent Shigehiko Togo contributed to this story.

correction: A previous version of this article stated the event was at Harvard University. It was in Tokyo.

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