Crown Prince Naruhito (search), heir to Japan's ancient throne, marked his 45th birthday Wednesday with an apology for hinting months ago that his wife had been the target of overzealous palace officials bent on making her fit the palace mold.
He declined to comment, however, on another royal concern: whether the imperial law that grants the throne only to male heirs should be changed so that the couple's daughter eventually could reign.
Naruhito said his wife, Crown Princess Masako (search), is recovering gradually from a stress disorder that forced her to withdraw from virtually all her official duties for more than a year.
"She is increasing the number of times she goes out on private business and actively striving to boost her energy," the prince told palace reporters in a news conference. A transcript of the news conference, conducted Monday, was released by the palace Wednesday. "I hope to do all that I can to help her recover and return to her duties."
Masako, 41, has stayed out of the public eye since December 2003, when she developed adjustment disorder — a stress-induced condition marked by bouts of depression and anxiety — due to the pressures of palace life and pressure on her to bear a son to carry on the imperial line.
Only males can assume the throne, and that rule has created something of a crisis for Japan's imperial family, the oldest in the world, because there are no heirs in the generation after Naruhito's.
The government is currently debating whether to amend the law to allow Naruhito's daughter, Princess Aiko (search), to follow him.
Naruhito refused to comment on the debate.
"Whatever becomes of Aiko's status in the future, I hope that she will be raised to be a fine person," he said.
He did, however, try to tone down his previous remarks blaming those around his wife of putting her under too much stress. Naruhito touched off a major tempest last May by angrily suggesting in a news conference that palace officials contributed to her illness by disrespecting her background and the diplomatic career she gave up 12 years ago to marry into the imperial family.
"I made my remarks last year with the intention of letting our nation know Masako's situation," he said. "But I caused concern for their majesties the emperor and empress, and I apologize for that. I also worried the people."
Masako's plight has generated strong support for changes in Japan's rigid, tradition-bound palace.
Recent polls have placed public support for a reigning empress at above 80 percent.
Masako gave up a promising career in Japan's Foreign Ministry to marry Naruhito. Many Japanese had hoped the modern and multilingual princess would help give new direction to the imperial family and the Imperial Household Agency, which runs the royals' affairs.
If allowed to reign, Aiko, who is now 3, would be the first woman on the Chrysanthemum Throne since Empress Gosakuramachi from 1762 to 1771. Seven other women have occupied the throne throughout its 1,500 years of documented history, but historians generally agree that they served as temporary caretakers until males could take over.
None of their offspring ever succeeded them.