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Royal reality

BY PUBLICLY acknowledging that Japan's Princess Masako is in therapy for stress and depression, the Imperial Household Agency -- the usually cryptic keeper of a perfect royal image -- is providing what may be as much help as a mental health counselor.

Breaking the silence that attempts to hide problems is almost always a relief and the first step toward resolving them. Last month's palace announcement that Masako was undergoing psychotherapy should put a healthier definition to rumors and whispers and foster a climate that alleviates the unreasonable pressures on Japan's royalty.

Crown Prince Naruhito chose the Harvard- and Oxford-educated Masako and was cheered by progressive Japanese thinkers for his choice. But Masako, a commoner who speaks four languages and gave up a diplomatic career to marry in 1993, was not encouraged to use her considerable intellect at court.

Despite the wedding day promise of her husband to protect her from a tradition-bound culture, the dictates of the old guard demanded that she assume the primary role that all Chrysanthemum Throne princesses are expected to fulfill: producing a male heir.

So intense was the pregnancy watch inside and outside the palace that the prince appealed for restraint in 1996, telling a press conference that "a stork needs a quiet environment." The birth of a daughter in 2001 only intensified the demand for a boy.

A far less whimsical prince stood up for his wife at a press conference in May, saying she was "completely exhausted." Alluding to palace tensions, he noting that "there were moves which nullified Masako's career and nullified her character based on that career."

Here's hoping that therapy revitalizes that character and that the throne also grows from Masako's experience.

The palace should have learned the consequences of ignoring psychic pain from Naruhito's mother -- Empress Michiko -- who as a commoner also apparently found the pressure of palace life oppressive and battled depression. But the problem has remained a stage whisper, never acknowledged publicly by Emperor Akihito, her husband, or palace officials. Perhaps now it will be.

Masako's diplomatic and linguistic skills should be considered invaluable to the throne in a world that is increasingly global and where the ability to communicate is worth more than the crown jewels.

But a princess is too often viewed through a fairy tale haze, and the viewer wants to see "happily ever after" instead of reality. It certainly happened to Princess Diana. And it happens to American first ladies, too -- or potential first ladies considered too independent or outspoken or flawed.

A government or monarchy is best served by forward-looking individuals firing on all cylinders, not images rooted in the past. 

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