John Burnham Schwartz acknowledges in an author’s note at the beginning of his novel The Commoner that it is inspired by people and incidents connected to the Japanese Imperial family. Empress Michiko is the first commoner to marry into the Imperial family in its 1000-year history. As crown princess, she and her husband, the then Crown Prince Akihito also broke tradition by deciding to raise their own children rather than send them away.
The story is told from the viewpoint of its protagonist, Haruko, the only daughter of a wealthy sake brewing company owner, who meets the crown prince of the Imperial family on the tennis court. A somewhat awkward courtship followed, and Haruko became the crown princess. The empress, her new mother-in-law, made it clear that she disapproved of her son’s wife and made her feel like an unwelcome outsider — even to the point of appointing ladies in waiting who spied on the princess and delivered the princess her mother-in-law’s decrees regarding Haruko’s behavior and the empress’ expectations for improvement. When Haruko tries to assert herself upon giving birth to her son, Yasu, the empress effectively breaks Haruko’s spirit. Years later, Haruko must make a difficult decision when she sees the weight of being a part of the Imperial family crushing her own daughter-in-law.
Truthfully, though Schwartz insists this book is a work of fiction, the story differs from that of its inspiration principally in the ending alone. Many of the events Haruko, Schwartz’s Michiko, describes really happened to the Empress as well. In addition, Crown Princess Masako has also suffered problems similar to those of Schwartz’s Keiko.
While the novel concerns the Japanese court, it is really the story of women. Throughout history, women of all backgrounds have been subjugated in the way Haruko and her daughter-in-law were. Oppressed by tradition, duty, and even, as in the case of Haruko, other women, these women were silenced. It did not matter that they were as intelligent and capable (and often more so) as the men in their lives. Their places in society were fixed. I was actually reminded of Princess Diana as I read. I think it must be difficult for women who enter into marriages with men who are part of establishments like monarchies — always saying or doing the wrong thing, never able to make their in-laws happy, all their efforts focused on giving birth to a male heir.
The novel is a love letter to those women who have been unable to tell their own stories. I really enjoyed it. Schwartz’s symbolism is careful and appropriate. I liked his writing style — I felt it evoked the setting well. I do not know much about Japan. I did read an Amazon review that picked at some inaccuracies in the novel. If you are quite familiar with Japan, perhaps these issues will bother you, too; however, I have to say that the majority of the reviewers agree with my own assessment that the novel is moving and beautifully written. I might not have read the book if not for listening to this radio program about it, which says more than I can in a simple review:
You can learn more about the Emperor and Empress of Japan and their son, Crown Prince Naruhito and his wife the Crown Princess Masako.