FICTION

Not a Fairy Tale

  Enlarge Photo    
Reviewed by Kunio Francis Tanabe
Sunday, February 10, 2008

THE COMMONER

By John Burnham Schwartz

Nan A. Talese/Doubleday. 351 pp. $24.95

Writing about the Japanese imperial family can be risky business. Last year the publisher of the Japanese edition of Princess Masako: Prisoner of the Chrysanthemum Throne, Ben Hills's biography of the current princess consort, dropped the book. A smaller Tokyo publisher picked it up but was unable to place ads for it in any major Japanese newspapers. Meanwhile, Hills received a letter signed by the Grand Chamberlain to His Majesty the Emperor, protesting the many "inaccuracies" in his book. Foreign ministry officials also sent letters of complaint to Hills's Australian publisher. The controversy continues with both the Imperial Household Agency and Hills vying to persuade their audience.

John Burnham Schwartz, author of Bicycle Days, Reservation Road and Claire Marvel, must have known about this unusual affair as he was writing The Commoner, an excellent novel based on the life of the current empress of Japan. Many of the details of his story coincide with actual events from the royal family's recent history.

The "commoner" of the title is Haruko Endo, born in 1934 (the same year as Empress Michiko) to a prosperous Tokyo family, whose patriarch is the head of a sake brewing company. (The empress's father was president of Nisshin Flour Milling Company.) As Haruko relates her story -- in a delicate voice that the reader can easily accept as that of the future bride of the crown prince -- we learn of her hardships during the war years, her sheltered life at a prestigious Catholic school and the joyful summers spent in the resort town of Karuizawa, where she first encounters the crown prince on the tennis courts.

The romance blossoms under the watchful eyes of imperial handlers and the ubiquitous press. Haruko gives this impression of the crown prince: "Born into radiance, he seemed to have no interest in radiance for its own sake. He could be shy, awkward even, when met on the guarded line between his public duties and his private self. . . . His silence had a surprisingly generous quality, which neither encouraged nor demanded silence in return."

But the burden of even contemplating marriage to a future emperor is too much for her to bear, and the parents wisely whisk her off to Europe. Upon her return she is invited to the royal palace: "The search for you was long and thorough. And quite unprecedented," the empress tells Haruko. "Of course, whenever there is a break of this magnitude with the past, there will be concerns. The question of lineage, for instance." In an oblique way, the empress is referring to the tradition of selecting a royal bride from only the most prominent aristocratic families, a custom that has lasted for more than 2,000 years.

News of the commoner's engagement results in an outpouring of public approval. The imperial representative explains the family's position: "We as a nation have reached a stage in our history when certain ancient practices must be thoughtfully adjusted in order to best represent the spirit of the people."

After a detailed description of the couple's celebrated wedding in 1959, Schwartz's narrative winds deeper into the imperial court and the oppressive demands on the new princess. Haruko seeks relief from some of her official duties with the gentle support of her husband. She stumbles with words and deeds deemed unacceptable for a princess consort. She loses her voice for months. Gradually, she recovers and, with the death of the emperor, is thrust into the more demanding role of empress.

She performs her primary imperial duty by bearing a son (modeled after Crown Prince Naruhito) and a daughter. As they mature, the drama shifts to the crown prince's love interest, Keiko Mori, a brilliant career diplomat educated at Oxford. Keiko's profile nearly fits that of the current Princess Masako, another commoner who suffered similar consequences for marrying into the imperial household.

Thus, the author has willingly entered a minefield surrounding the palace much like the one Ben Hills stomped on. Schwartz's story, hewing so close to the life of Empress Michiko and Princess Masako, can only displease the Imperial Household Agency -- particularly with the surprise ending. But readers should be delighted. Schwartz has written a mesmerizing novel full of tenderness and compassion, one that convincingly invests the Japanese empress's voice with all the nuance it demands. *

Kunio Francis Tanabe, former senior editor and art director of Book World, was born and raised in Japan. His e-mail address is kftanabe@yahoo.com.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company