SOME weeks ago, the Japanese Cabinet - the power and puppeteer behind the public face of Japan's Imperial Family - approved a curious resolution by the National Parliament. Crown Prince Naruhito and his fiancee Masako Owada, it decreed, would not legally be able to accept wedding gifts from friends and relatives. The ruling limited gift-giving at tomorrow's wedding to politicians, Supreme Court judges and a few other groups under requirements stipulated by the autocratic Imperial Household Agency (IHA), and was apparently inspired by a wish to protect the happy couple. Japan was so enraptured by the 33-year-old Crown Prince's fairy-tale engagement story and by his beautiful future empress, the agency reasoned, that unless limits were put on the largesse, the poor souls would be inundated with presents. What Naruhito and Masako thought about the arrangement is not on record, and whether or not they are allowed to receive wedding day trinkets from well-wishers may be immaterial to them. But has the IHA, a government-appointed body which rigidly controls the world's oldest monarchy, misread popular feeling? In January, when news slipped out that after a long search Prince Naruhito had at last found his perfect bride, a 29-year-old diplomat from Tokyo's upper social strata, Japan evidently approved of the choice. For a few weeks, it seemed as if the nation had stepped back to 1959 and was again preparing for the Cinderella-land wedding of the then Crown Prince Akihito and flour miller's daughter Michiko Shoda, now Japan's Emperor and Empress. ''Outside the Imperial Palace, there was joy on every level of Japanese life,'' wrote an author of that particular betrothal. ''Young girls were weeping romantic tears over the Imperial love story.'' Thirty-five years later, the Imperial Household Agency - a body which traditionally does not move at the same pace as the rest of Japan - could be caught in a time warp, or perhaps wishes it were. WHAT the agency apparently has not accepted yet, perhaps because of the euphoria which surrounded the news of the engagement early this year, is that a lot has changed in 35 years, and that many Japanese are quite indifferent towards the royal wedding. But the agency must be aware of one thing: no matter how similar the latest wedding of a future emperor might be to the last one, the Cinderella this time around presents a much greater danger than the former Michiko Shoda did to the ancient traditions the IHA has been so diligent in preserving. ''Before her engagement,'' one Tokyo newspaper reported recently, ''Owada walked briskly in low-heeled pumps and dressed in crisp, dark business suits, often with trousers, a briefcase in her hand. ''Since (then), she has appeared in public in feminine suits and dresses in white and light pastels, wearing high-heeled shoes and carrying a pocketbook. As Crown Princess, Owada will have to wear colours and styles that suit the conservative household agency, such as pink, pale yellow and white.'' That will not be the only concession Ms Owada, a highly-intelligent, personable and linguistically gifted former career diplomat, will have to make when she becomes Naruhito's bride. The burning question in Japan is whether she will be able to handle thechange about to take hold of her life. From the moment the royal engagement was announced, it was common knowledge that Owada had not been keen on marrying into the Imperial Family, and that Naruhito had won her hand only after some desperate courting. Few were surprised by those revelations. Owada was a young but accomplished diplomat with a big career ahead of her; when she marries Naruhito, she turns her back forever on a normal life. And despite plans for a lavish wedding which will cost the Japanese people upwards of JPY180 million (about HK$2.5 million) in state banquets alone, the new Crown Princess will find her cage far from gilded . . . unless she brings a few comforts with her. Once the richest family in Japan, the Imperial Family lost almost everything in punitive taxes imposed by the MacArthur administration after World War II. Out of a personal fortune estimated in 1947 at JPY3.71 billion - a huge amount in those days - the family lost its palaces and ended up with a mere JPY400 million. Ever since, its members have been among the poor cousins of world royalty. While the family naturally still has the use of the various state-owned palaces and land it once owned, it survives almost entirely on government allowances which cover its personal daily expenses, official ceremonies, functions and receptions, travel and so on. A separate government allowance keeps the IHA running. Under these circumstances it is not surprising that like Empress Michiko on her wedding day, Masako Owada will be required to bring with her a considerable dowry - one reason that has been put forward for her reluctance to marry Naruhito. In 1959, Michiko Shoda brought to her groom six tonnes of goods in four truckloads, including two pianos, a three-piece suite, Western and Japanese wardrobes, sewing machines, clothes, shoes, jewellery and other accessories. The total value was about JPY30 million. According to Imperial Family sources, Ms Owada's father, a high-ranking Foreign Affairs official, will have to cough up at least JPY100 million for furniture and other goods to help equip the couple. And according to one source, the booty won't go astray. ''The Akasaka Palace, where the newlyweds will live when the Emperor moves to new accommodations, is nothing like the images one has of palaces as being ornamental or covered in gold,'' the source said. ''It's nothing like that at all. In fact it's a very ordinary building with very ordinary furnishings and fluorescent lighting. It is really quite disappointing.'' Once inside the palace, Crown Princess Masako will encounter a complete change in lifestyle in that she will no longer be allowed any real personal freedoms. Under the current household regime, she almost certainly will not be allowed to leave the palaceunless she has an official reason for doing so. Owada, until recently a snappy dresser, will not be allowed outside to shop for IHA-approved clothes or anything else, to visit friends, to go to a movie or a concert, or take a holiday of her choice. Life at home will mean doing what is expected of her,which means writing poetry and generally upholding other ancient family traditions, and fitting in with other family members. ''The Imperial Family represent the Japanese people and have to set an example. They cannot be seen to be too lavish. ''They'll be able to have friends over for parties, which they'll pay for themselves. As long as they stay in the palace grounds, they'll be able to do virtually what they want. Outside, they'll do what they're told by the agency and policy.'' How will the Harvard and Oxford-educated Ms Owada cope with all this? There are cynics, a lot of them, who believe she won't be able to, that her small concession on personal dress will be one of the last she makes willingly and that once she sheds the formal kimono she will be required to wear for the wedding, a battle with the household agency is inevitable. ''Both Masako and Naruhito have led normal lives . . . he 'batched' for a couple of years at Oxford and did his own laundry and ironing,'' said a family source. ''They've both lived outside Japan in a Western culture.'' ''Masako is not a typical or traditional Japanese woman or what some call a Hako iri Musume - a doll in a box. She can't be regarded as purely ornamental, cute and subservient. ''She is a bureaucrat and will know how the household agency bureaucracy works. The agency will not be able to control her as easily as they would like.'' LIBERAL thinkers believe, in fact, that Masako Owada will do nothing but good for the Imperial Family, which could do no better than have a trained diplomat doing a job that, as a minimum requirement, demands considerable diplomacy. They believe she will be a fine royal ambassador for her country. And Ms Owada is too intelligent not to have weighed up her situation carefully. She knows full well what life awaits her beyond the palace most and what she has left behind in embracing it. How well her partnership with Naruhito goes, and how well she copes with being controlled by the Imperial Household Agency are questions only others are asking. ''I have decided that my role now is to [marry the Prince] and make myself useful in my new mission as a member of the Imperial Family,'' she said recently. ''It was my own decision, and I have no regrets.''