April 10, 2009 / 2:34 AM / 10 years ago

Japan marks 50th anniversary of "commoner" empress

TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan’s Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko were set to throw a golden wedding tea party for 100 couples on Friday, marking 50 years since Michiko became the first commoner to marry into the cloistered imperial household.

Japan's Emperor Akihito (L) and Empress Michiko wave to well-wishers as they listen to the Imperial Guard music band's performance in celebration of their 50th wedding anniversary in the Imperial Palace compound in Tokyo April 10, 2009. REUTERS/Katsumi Kasahara/Pool

The milestone has sparked a wave of nostalgia in the media about the early days of their marriage, when the young woman dubbed “Mitchy” became a fashion icon and a potent symbol of a new, forward-looking Japan.

“Japan was young then, too,” read one magazine headline, listing the milestones of the 1960s, including the Tokyo Olympics and the opening of the high-speed “bullet” train network.

In an interview published to mark the anniversary, Akihito, 75, said he was looking forward to meeting the other couples, who all celebrate their golden wedding anniversaries this year.

“Around the time when the empress and I were married, although people’s lives were not necessarily rich, everyone was filled with hope and looking forward to the future,” he said.

Michiko’s modern style was a major factor in her popularity. Photos show her in a full-skirted 1950s dress bidding farewell to her kimono-clad mother on the day of her wedding.

As crown princess she went on to experiment with the styles of the 1960s and 1970s, including mini-skirts.

All was carefully thought out, especially her tiny hats, which she favors to allow her to sit close to people without forcing them to dodge a wide brim.

Born Michiko Shoda, the eldest daughter of a wealthy flour company executive, she met the then-crown prince at a tennis tournament.

They married in a 1959 ceremony watched by millions of Japanese on television sets many families were said to have purchased especially for the occasion.

That new openness helped breach the divide between the imperial family and the public and establish their image as an “ordinary” middle-class couple. Japan’s ruler was venerated as a living god until Akihito’s late father Emperor Hirohito denied their divine status after World War Two.

Michiko, 74, broke another tradition, and won popular acclaim, when she chose to raise their three children at home rather than send them to a private tutor outside the palace, even making them packed lunches to take to school.

“Fifty years ago when I left an ordinary family to join the new environment of the imperial family, my heart was filled with uncertainty and anxiety,” Michiko said in an interview published to mark the anniversary. “For me to be here today by his majesty’s side, welcoming our golden wedding anniversary, truly seems to be as if in a dream.”


But the fairy tale was only part of Michiko’s story — she lost weight and suffered health problems some commentators blamed on bullying by the courtiers of the Imperial Household Agency.

Similar rumors surfaced late in 1993 after Michiko collapsed and temporarily lost the ability to speak, a reaction attributed by some to tabloid reports that she was shrewish and made excessive demands on palace staff.

In March 2007 she was forced to rest for more than a week after showing symptoms of intestinal bleeding, which the Imperial Household Agency said was likely caused by stress.

She once spoke to reporters of her lapses of confidence and said she would like to hide behind a “cloak of invisibility” so she could browse in second-hand bookshops and visit museums without bothering other people.

Michiko’s difficulties were mirrored by the stress-induced mental illness of Crown Princess Masako, a former diplomat who is the wife of her eldest son, Crown Prince Naruhito.

Known for her eagerness to communicate with ordinary Japanese, Michiko famously knelt and embraced weeping victims of the 1995 Kobe earthquake during a visit with her husband to a shelter for those who had lost their homes.

An English literature graduate from Sacred Heart Women’s University in Tokyo, Michiko takes a keen interest in the arts and has written a children’s book and translated two volumes of poetry for children.

Editing by Michael Watson

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