It was back in 1994 when my great-aunt, a legendary figure in children’s books and the publisher of two volumes of poetry translated into English by Empress Michiko of Japan, returned from a visit to Tokyo with an extraordinary story to tell: she’d had lunch for two hours, alone, with the empress. At the end of the meal, Empress Michiko, taking her ladies-in-waiting by complete surprise, had reached out impulsively and kissed her visitor goodbye on the cheek. This was unprecedented behavior; for my aunt, it was unforgettable. Weeks later, she was still taking obvious pleasure in the memory of it: the details of the palace, the exquisite manners and natural warmth of the empress, the spontaneous affection of that shocking kiss on the cheek. What had most impressed her was how the empress had gracefully deflected all conversation away from herself, asking question after question about my aunt’s life in publishing and her passion for her work. It was, my aunt felt, almost as if the empress—who had been the first commoner ever to marry into the cloistered, secretive imperial family, and who was known to have suffered great emotional pain as a result—were subtly inquiring about a life that might have been hers, had things turned out very differently.
That, essentially, was the story. And for some reason I could not get enough of it: many times I asked my aunt to tell me about her lunch with the empress.
Ten years later, I began work on The Commoner—a novel inspired by the lives of the empress and crown princess of Japan—which has now been published.
I lived in Tokyo for four months in 1986. I was 21, boarding with a Japanese family, and working for an American company. I spoke the language, and attempted to walk the walk. So intense was my passion for the culture that my embrace of its peculiarities was more like a choke hold; there were stretches when I forgot to breathe. In the end, I came out of that experience with a first novel, Bicycle Days, and an unexpected vocation. But at the time, my window onto that complex, exotic world was obscured by the clouds of my own desperate desire to belong to a place that would not have me.
To interest me now, a window must contain something besides my own faintly distorted reflection. It is the privilege of the novelist—the traveler, too—to imagine lives that, outwardly at least, in their surface orchestrations, bear almost no resemblance to his own. People living, as it were, on the other side of a wall, beyond a moat, in the sway of mysterious forces and hidden inclinations. People we think we’ve seen—in photographs, an encyclopedia, a news flash on CNN—but never really have. The particular unknown. It is by attempting to understand these disparate existences—in effect, by “living” them empathetically, in thought and on paper—that we may come to see their unexpected, and unexpectedly moving, connections to our own. And so, word by word, image by image, does the world grow a little smaller.
The world of imperial Japan was first brought closer to me when, as an undergraduate, I came across The Tale of Genji, the 11th-century novel by Lady Murasaki Shikibu. After recovering from the realization of just how long the book is—at well over a thousand pages in translation, Genji is Proustian in scope—I quickly found myself addicted to its combination of soap-opera plotting and penetrating psychological acuity. The book has everything you might want in an HBO miniseries, including adultery, incest, date rape, imperial scheming, and treachery of the highest and lowest order. It depicts in vivid detail the court world of Japan’s Heian Period (Kyoto’s original name was Heian-kyo), in which approximately 5,000 aristocrats—obsessed, like aristocrats everywhere, with rank and breeding—spent their days in a sensitive fog of poetry writing, flower viewing, music appreciation, and general, if fleeting, lovemaking, while they attempted to climb or sleep their way up the social ladder toward the imperial throne.