Royal Flush

The Commoner

by John Burnham Schwartz
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 351 pp., $24.95

Whenever a Japanese crown prince gets married, to this day, the new groom and bride have to crawl, on their knees, into a secret enclosure in the Imperial Palace to seek the approval of the prince’s official ancestor, the sun goddess, Amaterasu. The Emperor and Empress are, by tradition, not allowed to watch the rites in person—they have to content themselves with following the action outside the shrine on TV. After the new bride bears children, she will not, if she is a commoner, be permitted to introduce them to their nonimperial grandparents. And when the prince accedes to the throne, he retreats to the same place to lie down for a night with his mythic forebear, in what sounds like a somewhat incestuous, as well as cross-species, alliance.

It’s small wonder, perhaps, that when the current heir to the Chrysanthemum Throne was looking for a bride, any woman on whom his eye alighted was said to have raced off to divest herself of her virginity, or at least to pierce her ears so that, ritually defiled, she would no longer be a candidate for regal immurement.

We’ve always, perhaps, made of our rulers what we will. The traditional point of a monarch is to be someone we hardly ever approach in person but live with in our heads—a legend brought to earth, but still belonging to a different realm. What used to be personages within an allegorical pageant are now, however, more like tragicomic types in a daily soap opera. We watch the toe-sucking dalliances of princesses; we hear crown princes longing to be Tampaxes to their mistresses. In countries like Britain and Monaco, where crowned heads have declined to rebrand themselves as bicycle-riding Everypeople (as many Scandinavian monarchs have done), we almost want them to be figures of jeweled glamour who are also entertaining fools. They’re just like us, we sometimes think, except that their mistakes and betrayals are available to us on page 1.

Japan, quite typically, is the one nation where, to some extent, the monarchs still live behind a veil, and daylight, in Bagehot’s famous phrase, has not been fully let in upon the magic. Geographically, they remain sequestered behind high walls and a moat in the center of Tokyo, a grand ceremonial absence. And though they come out to recite ritual poems every New Year, and are often seen doing good deeds and offering sweet nothings to their people, they remain sheltered and largely beyond public criticism. The press inquires constantly and pitilessly about when the crown princess will deliver an heir or what color shoes the Empress might wear, but by Western standards reporters on the palace beat are still kept largely under control, and defer to some of the proprieties one might have found in Britain in the 1950s (when, as Tina Brown tells us in her Diana Chronicles, Lord Altrincham was slapped in the street and dropped from his regular spot on the BBC after he wrote, in an obscure journal,…

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