A Belmont High School alumna is the new empress of Japan.
Masako Owada, a member of the Class of ’81, took on the title of Empress Masako Wednesday when her husband, Naruhito, became the 126th emperor of Japan.
As an empress who has drawn comparisons in the international press to Princess Diana, Owada has come a long way since she was a student at Belmont High. The daughter of a top diplomat from Japan, she moved to Belmont when she was a teenager and lived on Juniper Road.
Owada participated in the math team and French club at Belmont High, and she smiled brightly in her senior photo. In her class yearbook, she wrote about her fond memories of the Kennedy Library, Tokyo, ESL, and “M*A*S*H,” which was the senior class play that year.
“I came here at the beginning of the junior year and had a wonderful time,” she wrote. “I thank all my friends. . . . friendships forever.”
Owada was born in Tokyo on Dec. 9, 1963, and spent much of her early life living abroad in the Soviet Union and New York until her family returned to Japan in 1971. As a young girl, Owada was an avid baseball player. She loved the sport so much that when the boys in Japan wouldn’t let her play with them, she organized a girls’ team, according to a 1993 Boston Globe profile.
Back then, she was something of a tomboy. Globe reporter Colin Nickerson wrote that one of her teachers in Japan accused her of being “too boyish for a proper Japanese girl,” and that “her sisters sarcastically addressed her as ‘dear brother.’ ”
“But so what?” Nickerson wrote. “What mattered was that she could play third base and smack that horsehide ball clear out of the schoolyard while the boys gaped and the teachers frowned. Her heroes were all baseball stars. She dreamed of joining the big leagues.”
But alas, that dream wouldn’t come to pass. In 1979, when her family moved to Belmont, she gave up baseball for tennis and skiing, according to the Globe.
Although she did not list softball as one of her extracurricular activities in her yearbook, Owada was also known for her prowess in the sport, according to Ben Hills, the late Australian journalist who penned a controversial unauthorized biography of Owada.
“The only public report of her time at Belmont High, apart from her academic record, is a write-up in the local paper which dubbed her ‘Slugger’ Masako, after a softball success,” Hills wrote in his 2006 book, “Princess Masako: Prisoner of the Chrysanthemum Throne.”
One of her teachers, Lillian Katz, recalled that Owada was a model student during her time in Belmont. She focused on her studies and excelled in chemistry, physics, math, and German. She graduated in the top 10 percent of her class.
“She was wonderful — bright and sweet and considerate to others,” Katz said in Nickerson’s 1993 profile piece.
Owada, now 55, went on to study at Harvard, where she served as president of the Japanese Cultural Society and graduated magna cum laude with a degree in economics in 1985, according to the Harvard Crimson.
Owada continued her studies at the University of Tokyo and the University of Oxford and worked as a diplomat prior to joining Japan’s royal family. She met her husband-to-be in 1986 in Tokyo at a welcoming party for a member of the Spanish royal family. She was reportedly not interested in courtship right away, and it wasn’t until December 1992 that she accepted his proposal of marriage, according to Encyclopaedia Britannica.
Her engagement drew widespread media attention from around the world, and when she finally married Crown Prince Naruhito in June 1993, the town of Belmont was abuzz with excitement.
In June 1993, the Globe reported that the Belmont Board of Selectmen signed a proclamation extending congratulations to Owada on behalf of the town, and the Belmont Woman’s Club sponsored a special concert and reception at the high school in Owada’s honor.
“We’re very proud of being in the international spotlight like this,” then-selectman Anne Taubes Warner said in the story. “We are proud that such a distinguished family chose this town to educate their child.”