TOKYO Over the past few weeks, Japanese Crown Prince Naruhito has been in the public eye as rarely before, whether tipping a wine glass in toasts at a state banquet or conferring imperial decorations as he stands in for Emperor Akihito, who has been in hospital.
Naruhito's prominence while his 77-year-old father recovers from what court officials say is a mild case of pneumonia has given Japan a fresh look at the scholarly, unassuming man who likes animals and watching sumo wrestling with his 9-year-old daughter, Aiko.
Whereas Emperor Akihito had a relatively clear role to play when he ascended the Chrysanthemum throne, trying to heal the wounds of a war waged across Asia in the name of his father, Emperor Hirohito, Naruhito, 51, may find it harder to forge a path of his own.
And Naruhito may also have to carve out a role largely on his own. His 47-year-old wife, Crown Princess Masako, has suffered from depression brought on by the stress of palace life and unfulfilled demands she bear a male heir, and her public appearances have been sporadic for nearly eight years.
Emperor Akihito took the throne in January 1989 when he was 55, after a similar period of filling in for his father.
Royal watchers said Naruhito would bring to the job an unusual range of experience for a Japanese royal, including studying at Oxford University for a period, which he once said were some of the best years of his life.
"He's very serious," said Miiko Kodama, a professor at Musashi University in Tokyo.
"He's done a lot of studying, written some scholarly reports, and when he makes up his mind about what kind of emperor he wants to be, he'll slowly and steadily work to achieve it. The issue is his wife."
Some of Naruhito's interests may appear innocuous or plain dull -- he has studied medieval transport and espouses environmental causes -- and, like the rest of his family, he has generally shunned the slightest hint of controversy.
But some royal watchers say that within the limits, he has actually broken new ground for the imperial family by publicly calling for more men to be hands-on fathers, and by taking up a global cause such as clean water.
In addition, he married Masako, a Harvard- and Oxford-educated diplomat, overcoming the opposition of palace officials, and Masako's doubts, by promising to "protect her with all his might" from the strains of life in a monarchy traditionalists say originated more than 2,000 years ago.
After she faded under the denial of her hopes to use her diplomatic experience, he shocked the nation with unusually blunt remarks in her defense, earning a rebuke from his younger brother and some sorrowful remarks from the emperor.
Some years ago, tabloid magazines even speculated that he might abdicate, or that the two might divorce.
"Part of what's going on here is that there are people in Japan who clearly do not like Naruhito, in no small part because they don't like Masako," said Kenneth Ruoff, director of the Center for Japanese Studies at Portland State University and author of a book on Emperor Hirohito.
"FAMILY OF ACTION"
Such conservatives favor Naruhito's younger brother, Prince Akishino, and his family, partly because his wife Kiko, who has never had a career and fulfills all her public duties, better fits notions of traditional womanhood. In addition, they have a son, Hisahito, who is third in line for the throne.
"But the fact of the matter is that Naruhito will be the next emperor, unless he himself decides that he doesn't want to do it. I suspect that's highly unlikely," Ruoff said.
The success of Emperor Akihito's move to make the family "middle class" means there may be little for his son to do other than continue in that mold.
"Under Emperor Hirohito, at first, the imperial family was prayed to. Now they're a family of action -- they go out to disaster areas and comfort people, things like that," said Midori Watanabe, an imperial family commentator.
"The crown prince will talk it over with Masako and find something they can do for the people. I imagine they're thinking of this even now."
Some clues may be found in the role taken by the family after a March 11 earthquake and tsunami killed about 20,000 people.
The emperor went on television in an unprecedented address to the people, calling on them to work together to overcome the "difficult times." All the royals, including Masako, have visited the disaster area more than once.
Should Naruhito ascend the throne in the near future, he may oversee recovery from the crisis, said Kodama. Support for environmental conservation may also be a priority.
Simply being there in a time of change could also be enough.
"They serve in some intangible but still significant sense as a unifying force," said Ruoff.
"So in one sense, when he came on television during the earthquake, that was the quintessential sense of him playing that sort of unifying role."
(Editing by Tomasz Janowski and Robert Birsel)