I’ve always found Japan’s history and culture extremely interesting, so when I stumbled across The Commoner, the tale of an ordinary girl becoming Empress of Japan by John Burnham Schwartz, I was immediately set on reading it. I’m glad I did–I enjoyed it, though that doesn’t mean I didn’t have some issues with it.
Based on the real Empress of Japan, Michiko, the novel details the life of the first commoner to marry into the Japanese imperial family. In the fictionalized version presented, her name is Haruko Tsuneyasu, and she takes us through her life growing up in post-WWII Japan, becoming a young woman, and eventually marrying the Crown Prince of Japan, against the advice of her father.
Learning about the secretive, tradition-bound world of the Japanese royal family was really intriguing. Haruko is the perfect narrator, as she too is learning about these rules for the first time. It was easy to see how stifling the court rituals were, and therefore not surprising to see Haruko begin to wither away. Until relatively recently in Japan, the Emperor and his family were worshiped as descendants of the gods. On the surface, that sounds great–you’ve got servants at your beck and call, live in the royal palace, don’t have to work, etc, etc. But where The Commoner really shines is showing how being perceived as gods is actually an awful burden. Besides coping with the endless rules (always enter the room behind the Prince, never speak before he does), Haruko is nearly robbed of her humanity. Becoming the Crown Princess changes her relationship with her parents, introducing stiff formality and distance between them all. Haruko is barely allowed to see her son–nurses feed and change him, and only hand him off during prearranged visits. She has no real friends in the palace, no one she can trust or talk to. It’s heart-breaking to read.
Schwartz does an admirable job writing from the voice of Haruko. She is dedicated to her loving parents, but headstrong and her own person; her voice, though traditional in style and prose, shows just how deeply the strict rules of the court affect her, and how much, in her own small ways, she challenges them. (Also, though it’s not a large part of the book, I really related to the parts where Haruko described her aimlessness after graduating school without knowing what she truly wanted to do with her life.)
One thing I would have liked more of were the “middle years” of Haruko’s life; the book covers her early life as Crown Princess very well, and her later years as Empress, but completely cuts out her life from her late 20s to late 40s. I may have just read it too quickly, but despite the lingering treatment Schwartz uses on Haruko’s post-college and early Princess years, the book felt very short. (And to some, the ending might seem straight-up wish fulfillment, but I didn’t care–I was cheering for Haruko and Keiko to pull it off the entire time.) I also felt that the book was a little weaker in the second half, once the excitement and then dread of Haruko’s marriage wore off, but it did still keep me reading.
It’s overall an interesting, worthwhile read, especially for those who are interested in getting a glimpse behind the scenes of Japan’s royal family–and learning about the women who suffered under, and eventually changed, the system.
This book counts towards the Women Unbound Challenge.
Bookwanderer Rating: Three and a half/four stars
Bookwanderer Tagline: A sad but ultimately hopeful look at the world of the Chrysanthemum Throne.