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Scholar expects Empress Masako to be effective communicator for Japan

Japanese Empress Masako, left, and U.S. President Donald Trump chat during a banquet Emperor Naruhito and the empress hosted for the president and first lady Melania Trump at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo on May 27, 2019. (Pool photo, Kyodo)
Ezra Vogel, professor emeritus at Harvard University, was interviewed in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on Oct. 2, 2019. Specializing in social sciences, he has authored many books on East Asia, including Japan and China. (Kyodo)
Japanese Emperor Naruhito, 3rd from left, and Empress Masako, left, see off guests at a tea party held at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo on Aug. 30, 2019. (Pool photo, Kyodo)

CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts (Kyodo) -- Ezra Vogel, famed U.S. expert on Japan and China and professor emeritus at Harvard University, believes Empress Masako will prove an effective communicator for Japan on the world stage due to her diplomatic experience and command of languages.

"She'll be able to do it effortlessly," the long-time friend of the empress' family said in fluent Japanese during a recent interview with Kyodo News at his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The empress will take part in the "Sokuirei Seiden no gi" ceremony on Tuesday, in which her husband Emperor Naruhito, who ascended to the throne on May 1, will proclaim his enthronement to representatives from home and abroad.

Vogel, 89, first met the now-empress when she was a high school student. He was invited to a family meal by her father Hisashi Owada, 87, who became a visiting professor at Harvard in 1979.

The scholar is a long-time friend of Owada, a former vice foreign minister and president of the International Court of Justice in The Hague.

"She was a very quiet and serious girl, very different from the usual talkative American high school students," he recalled. Vogel remembered the future empress helping her mother in the kitchen and bringing dishes to the table.

Before her marriage, Empress Masako studied at Harvard University between 1981 and 1985, graduating magna cum laude in economics.

Vogel never taught her but observed when she participated in student discussions under a program about U.S.-Japan relations, which he led at Harvard.

The 1980s were marked by fierce trade frictions between the two nations, and Vogel remembers the future empress explaining Japan's position to other students while seeking to gain a deeper understanding of the reasons behind the United States' position.

Noting the extreme difficultly foreign students have in entering the prestigious American university, Vogel said the future empress was a very intelligent student.

"She was constantly thinking about how to improve relations between the United States and Japan. She had a very strong sense of responsibility," he said.

The professor emeritus, known for his 1979 book "Japan as Number One: Lessons for America," which became a best seller in Japan, acknowledged that "imperial couples are unable to negotiate with foreign leaders" unlike politicians or diplomats.

"It is, however, important that as Japan's representatives they can communicate their people's feelings to the world and give a good impression," he said.

The empress' overseas experience, including in Moscow and London, and facility with languages, make her sensitive to the nuances and subtleties of communication, he said, allowing her to keep on good terms with foreign leaders. The empress is fluent in English, French and German.

"Getting along is very important for an empress. She is exceptional in that. I believe that she will do very well in her role," Vogel said.

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