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'Commoner' Peeks Past Japan's Royal Walls

Feb 23, 2008 (Weekend Edition Saturday)

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In 1993, Masako Owada, an Ivy League-educated Japanese commoner, married Crown Prince Naruhito of Japan, and the pressures of life in the Imperial Palace soon started building.

Princess Masako, who was a diplomat before she married the prince, has not given birth to a male heir to the throne, though the couple has a daughter. She has also suffered emotional problems. Masako's travails resemble those of her mother-in-law, the current Empress Michiko. In 1959, the highly educated Michiko became the first commoner to marry into the Japanese royal family.

In his new novel, The Commoner, John Burnham Schwartz paints a picture of the suffocating life women like Masako and Michiko lead behind palace walls. Schwartz's fictional Haruko is a commoner who plays tennis well, speaks French beautifully, and has a wealthy father. In the late 1940s, Haruko captures the attention of the crown prince by beating him in a tennis match. Like the real-life current queen and king, they eventually marry and have a son, though Haruko suffers a breakdown — just as Empress Michiko did after the birth of her son.

Haruko's son eventually chooses a commoner bride. Haruko watches her story play out again in her son's marriage, just as Empress Michiko did when her son married Masako. Though Schwartz's novel is fiction, he provides a moving portrait of life behind palace walls, and readers must remind themselves that they're reading fiction.

Scott Simon spoke to Schwartz about the trappings — and traps — of imperial life in Japan.

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