Most little girls grow up dreaming of what life would be like as a member of royalty, but in the case of Michiko Shoda, born on 20 October 1934, that impossible dream became reality when Japan’s Emperor Akihito proposed marriage in 1959 to the commoner raised in the Catholic faith.
Could this match have been sanctioned by the Chrysanthemum Throne 25 years earlier when Michiko was born? Hardly. But breaking the commoner barrier was but one of the feats this woman accomplished—the first finding a way to gain acceptance from her prospective mother-in-law!
So, how did the daughter of one of Japan’s richest and well-respected families manage to gain the love, loyalty and respect of her people? By being herself and proving her mettle, despite the scorn of both her mother-in-law and those who believed she had no right to ascend to the throne because she was a commoner.
Bringing her own unique spirit to her role as Akihito’s wife, Michiko pursued her creative interests with gusto. She played the piano, promoted her nation’s gagaku music heritage and silkworm cultivation, wrote poetry, embroidered, and mastered the gentile art of flower arranging while quietly supporting populist causes like children’s liberation.
How did this strong-willed woman live life on her own terms despite constraints put upon her by Japan’s ancient culture? By understanding the delicate balance that existed between yesterday and today. Her expressive poetry, perhaps the most beloved penned as an ode to her first child, Prince Naruhito, gave her people insight into her sensitive soul and make them adore her even more.
Having found herself starting a family within a year after her marriage, Michiko surprised everyone by eschewing nannies and wet nurses. She would go on to be a very hands-on Mum who used her instincts to shape her child-rearing methods. Her signature child-bearing rules, known as the Naru-chan constitution, urge parents to hug and love their children while being attentive to their character and encouraging joyous play.
Was life the “bowl of cherries” music writers like to invoke when composing lyrics? Sadly, it wasn’t. The gentle nature of this beloved woman could take only so much of the mistreatment to which she was subjected by her mother-in-law before she experienced a nervous breakdown just four years into her marriage. But like the resolute soul that’s at the very core of her being, Michiko continued to uphold her responsibilities and raise her children.
Many stories have been written about the woman who became empress consort on 7 January 1989 when her father-in-law died and passed the crown to her husband. Yes, she has collapsed under the weight of public opinion on occasion—perhaps the last such occurrence was on her 59th birthday in 1993. But this indominable woman remains a beloved and respected symbol of all that is right with the Chrysanthemum Throne.
While it is expected that her husband will abdicate in favor of their only child on 30 April 2019, Michiko remains ever-present on the world stage as she continues to write poetry and advocate on behalf of one of Japan’s most precious legacies: supporting the Imperial tradition of sericulture begun in 1867 by Empress Shoken, the wife of Emperor Mutsuhito.
But perhaps the most important legacy of all is be her unique approach to child rearing. It broke with hundreds of years of tradition and has become a model and example for women throughout Japan. As the first commoner to join the royal family in her nation’s history, her fortitude and ability to transcend the harshest treatment-yet never turn her back on her duties or responsibilities-are the characteristics that won’t soon be forgotten when historians finish writing Empress Michiko’s story!