The Emperor's Second Son Falls in Love with a Commoner—and So Does the Rest of Japan

updated 09/18/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/18/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

She is a commoner whose fiancé is the younger brother of the heir apparent, second in line of succession to an ancient throne. Her fashion choices have suddenly become a national obsession. She likes horses, tennis and skiing. But Kiko Kawashima, whose engagement to Prince Aya, son of Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko of Japan, was announced Aug. 26, is no Sarah Ferguson. And her love story is nothing at all like the lusty saga of Fergie and Andy.

Kiko, 22, met Aya, 23, in college, where he was the head of a nature and culture club that she joined as a freshman. She addressed him as Your Imperial Highness; he, it is reported, was impressed by her modesty and quiet charm and her skills as a good listener. As Kiko's other admirers fell away in the face of imperial competition, Aya fell in love with her. Then, in March, on a field trip to look at historic buildings in a small town far from Tokyo, they slipped away from their group's camp-fire and walked together under a starlit sky. It was then, according to speculation, that Aya pledged his love to Kiko, now a psychology graduate student.

The announcement that Aya and Kiko plan to marry has set off a Fleet Street-style outbreak of royals fever in the usually staid Japanese press. "Looking at the photograph of them standing side by side, one is struck by how delightfully suited they seem for each other," gushed the mass-circulation Asahi Shimbun. Kiko's wardrobe (conservative), her makeup (a touch of eye shadow only) and her personality (quiet and scholarly) have all been analyzed in detail.

The Japanese press has also played up the poor-girl-and-the-prince motif. Jossei Seven, a teen magazine, quickly dubbed Kiko the Young Miss of the Housing Projects, and Asahi Shimbun editorialized, "It is not difficult to imagine the efforts that both Prince Aya and Kiko-san had to make to understand the relative wealth and social status of each other."

Kiko is portrayed as a sort of barefoot peasant whose beauty captured the heart of the Emperor's son. In fact, she is from an established academic family. Her father is an economics professor at Gakushuin University in Tokyo's Mejiro district, where she and Aya met; a grandfather was a high-ranking civil servant, and one of her great-grandfathers was also a professor at Gakushuin. Though Aya's genealogy, of course, is far more impressive—devout Shintoists trace his pedigree back 2,600 years—Kiko would not be the first commoner to marry into the imperial clan. The Empress, her future mother-in-law, came from a wealthy business family.

True to the traditions of Japan's royalty, Aya and Kiko are not commenting publicly on their planned union. But there is no doubt that this is a love match. One newspaper quoted Kiko as telling a friend, "It's just chance that the man I love happens to be a member of the imperial family." And since the Japanese, like anyone else, savor the pleasures of a fairy-tale ending, no one would for a moment think otherwise.

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