In his new book, The Commoner, novelist John Burnham Schwartz imagines the hidden world of the Japanese imperial family—centuries-old traditions alive in the heart of modern Tokyo. Here’s how the story began.
Courtesy of Random House Japan’s Imperial Secrets
| Credit: Courtesy of Random House

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.

For more than a thousand years, the emperor was little more than a symbol of racial and cultural continuity (as he is once again today); real political and military power lay with a few large and wealthy families who produced generations of warlords and shoguns. Then, in 1869, as the country reopened to the West, the imperial capital was moved to Tokyo. Emperor Meiji was installed in Edo Castle, then the largest in the world, and, with Bismarck’s Germany as a model of concentrated military and spiritual might, a few ambitious imperial advisers drew up a new constitution, under which the emperor was transformed from the noblest of human aristocrats into an actual deity, a descendant of the sun goddess Amaterasu Omikami, and the spiritual head of State Shinto. Now the military was fighting directly for the emperor, who was a god. And fight they did: China, Russia, Korea, China again; and finally World War II.

I am clearly giving little more here than a thumbnail sketch of modern Japanese history, so allow me to add a couple of less monumental—but, I think, no less interesting—events from the recent past. 1924: Then Prince Regent Hirohito abolishes the practice of imperial concubinage. 1946: The emperor is heard by millions of Japanese for the first time over the radio, declaring—under General MacArthur’s orders—that he is not a god, but merely a man. 1959: Emperor Hirohito’s eldest son, Crown Prince Akihito, marries a “commoner,” Michiko Shoda, well born but not an aristocrat. The marriage is called a “love match” in the press, and is widely cheered by the public. 1961: Under the stress of her new existence, Princess Michiko, already the mother of a baby boy, suffers a nervous breakdown and completely loses her voice for seven months. The press is asked to refrain from hounding her while she recuperates, and for the most part they oblige. 1993: Crown Prince Naruhito, son of Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko, marries Masako Owada, the Harvard-educated, internationally raised, career-minded, nonaristocratic daughter of one of Japan’s highest-ranking diplomats. After three rejections, the Prince had finally gained his bride’s hand by promising to “protect” her from the pressures of imperial life. Late 2003: Crown Princess Masako, 41, after years of struggle to conceive a male heir (she gave birth to Princess Aiko in 2001), succumbs to “a nervous collapse” and will hardly be seen in public for the next three years.

A long way from the bed-hopping, flower-gazing days of Genji, to be sure; and yet, in its aspects of profound human insularity and institutionalized otherworldliness, its unquestioning separation of the real and the symbolic, and its rigid insistence that the members of the imperial family—the Empress and Crown Princess, most of all—remain obediently mute in public with regard to their own opinions and desires: perhaps today’s imperial situation really is the continuation of the ancient past that legend demands it be.

Certainly, after hearing my aunt’s account of her lunch with Empress Michiko, I found myself wondering about these women in their exquisite prison. Symbols who move and speak, whose days and characters are utterly not their own and never will be. People seen by all and known by none. The most elevated of figures, yet, in a profoundly sad sense, helpless and unprotected. Seen from the outside, these women are like holograms. If I wanted to show human beings beyond those high stone walls, I finally decided, I would have to make them up.

Edo Castle

Tokyo Imperial Palace East Gardens, Kokyo Higashi-gyoen; 81-3/3213-2050.

Kyoto Imperial Palace

(Kyoto Gosho) 81-75/211-1215.

Tours of these sites can be arranged through the Imperial Household Agency: 81-3/3213-1111;