I was always captivated by the idea of Japan, and at Harvard, I majored in East Asian Studies, which led to my living and working in Tokyo during the summer of 1986, an indelible experience that in turn inspired my first novel, Bicycle Days.
The idea for The Commoner grew out of this old fascination and, more specifically, out of my interest in the Japanese Imperial Familya family that, with its unbroken (if imperfect) bloodlines and anachronistic rituals, is at once the world's longest-running and most hermetically sealed-off, cloistered, and mysterious monarchy. No memoirs or letters of significant Imperial Family members have ever been published, nor likely ever will be. No unofficial Court interviews have been conducted, no late-night phone calls secretly or inadvertently recorded. To the best of my knowledge, no novel has ever been written, in any language, that seeks to portray, and humanize, the rarified existence of those who are destined, or doomed, to live the rest of their lives on the other side of the palace moat in modern times. (One darkly satirical short story, in which the Emperor and his relatives are beheaded in a dream, was published in Japan in 1960, with tragic consequences for both the author and his publisher.)
The mainstream Japanese press continues to act almost as an extension of the Imperial Household Agency (the governmental institution that runs every aspect of life within the palace) in controlling and protecting the profound sense of unknowability that remains the Emperor's most valuable currency with his own people. In writing The Commoner, I pursued every avenue of research I could find. On a trip to Tokyo two years ago, I had lunch with His Excellency Makoto Watanabe, Grand Chamberlain to Emperor Akihito and perhaps the most powerful figure in Japan's Imperial Household Agency. That same week, I had a four-hour lunch with one of Empress Michiko's oldest and closest friends. (A year later, through her friend, the Empress, whom I have never met, sent me a book of her published press interviews and speeches.) Both meetings, in their own way, brought me many degrees closer to that hidden world in which my characters spend their adult lives.
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In 1959, Michiko Shoda (the current empress), a beautiful, accomplished graduate of Tokyo's exclusive Sacred Heart University, became the first commoner ever to marry into the Japanese Imperial Family. The public was for the most part thrilled with this break with tradition, but the reigning empress, bitterly unhappy with her son's marriage to a woman from outside the long-established circle of noble families, immediately began to undermine her new daughter-in-law.
In 1961, after Princess Michiko gave birth to Prince Naruhito (the heir to the throne), it was observed that she often appeared exhausted and beleaguered. Soon thereafter, in a mysterious case of grievous private suffering under relentless public scrutiny, she suffered a nervous breakdown and lost her voice for seven months.
In 1993, Masako Owada, the commoner daughter of a high-ranking diplomat, married Crown Prince Naruhito. At the time, she was thirty years old, brilliant and successful, a graduate of Tokyo University, Oxford, and Harvard, fluent in five languages, and a rising young star within the Foreign Ministry. She seemed in every way the epitome of a new breed of Japanese woman, unafraid to exhibit her knowledge and talents in areas previously inhabited exclusively by men. It was a career, and a life, that she sacrificed to marry the Crown Prince, a decent but notably uncharismatic man whom she had already rejected three times.
Within months, she disappeared almost completely into the archaic rituals of the imperial system. She was allowed to emerge in public only for official functions and, occasionally, to give rote answers to preapproved questions from the press about why she had yet to produce a male heir to the throne.
2007: The most recent report on the Crown Princess, now forty-three years old and the mother (through a secret in vitro fertilization procedure) of a five-year-old daughter, is that she is suffering from extreme "nervous exhaustion." She will bear no more children, and she has hardly been seen in public for three years.
These singular figures, transformed into fictional characters, form the core of my novel's story. It is the story of two extraordinary women who had ordinary childhoods, and who for their first twenty or twenty-five years had no way of knowingindeed could not have imaginedthat soon they would cross over into another world entirely, never again to be seen as they once were. It is the story of the private reality and cost of a brutally rarified and scrutinized existence at once hidden and exposed, and of a complex relationship between two isolated people who are perhaps truly perceived only by each other. It is the story of a genuine marriage somehow existing and growing in the most artificial environment imaginable.
Last September, under intense pressure from the Imperial Household Agency to produce a male heir, the Crown Prince's younger brother (second in line to the throne) and his wife momentarily solved the national crisis of succession by giving birth to a son. The Court bureaucrats, politicians, and the male members of the Imperial Family were, of course, jubilant. Yet, from the long-suffering women inside the palace walls, only silence has been heard.
John Burnham Schwartz
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