Romance on the Tennis Court | Daily News

Romance on the Tennis Court

The Japanese Royal family
The Japanese Royal family

Remembering some of the most cherished moments of world history when wedding bells tolled and two people united in love in magical surroundings 

They first met as opponents in a mixed doubles tennis tournament in August 1957. For more than two years, a small army of newsmen had watched the bachelor prince like hawks, taking careful note of his feminine tennis partners, who were usually members of noble families and consequently suitable prospective brides. But they paid scant attention to the girl on the other side of the net on that fateful day in August – she was not an – and missed witnessing the first petals of love opening under the summer skies.

On that August afternoon, Michiko Shoda (the daughter of a businessman who owned a flour-milling company) and Bobby Doyle, her American tennis partner, eliminated their mixed doubles opponents – Crown Prince Akihito and his partner. It took more than two hours for the Shoda-Doyle team to win. The game over, the four went to the benches.

“It was a long match, wasn’t it? “ said Akihito, speaking for the first time to Michiko. But the only indication that he took more than a passing interest in the girl was the fact that he opened his camera and snapped a picture of her.

Some months later, Akihito had the photograph enlarged and framed, and secretly presented it to Michiko through a friend. He also invited her to a private tennis match arranged for the brother of the shah of Iran, who was then visiting Tokyo.

Wisely, Michiko breathed not a word of the prince’s interest to anyone but her parents and to Mother Elizabeth Britt, president of Sacred Heart university in Tokyo, where Michi, an English literature major, was at the top of her class.

Both her parents were strongly opposed to her engagement, and she herself declined the honor of being Prince Akihito’s wife, more than once. The main reason was that members of the imperial family lead cloistered, artificial lives. But the Prince refused to give up, and love triumphed in the end. The wedding was set for April 1959.

From time immemorial, the Emperor has been considered by his subjects to be the Son of Heaven. He and his family, according to belief, “dwell above the clouds.” Many previous emperors had, chosen commoners as their concubines, but the engagement of Prince Akihito and Michiko Shoda marked the first time in Japan’s 26 centuries of history that an heir to the throne had “ descended from the clouds “ in search of a bride. And when Akihito fell in love with Michiko, another precedent was broken. For the first time, a royal heir had become engaged as the result of romance rather than of a per-arranged court decision.

Of course, what went on between Akihito and Michiko can hardly be called a romance, by western standards. Until their engagement was officially announced by the imperial household, the two were never alone together. They did not hold hands or exchange confidences. It was purely through furtive glances that they were able to communicate their feelings to each other. They did talk over the telephone, but usually with somebody else listening in.

As time went by, the young couple had gained wide public support. That support also came from the ruling political class. Additionally, everyone showed affection for the young “Mitchi” who had become the symbol of Japan’s modernization and democratization (the media at the time hinted at the phenomenon of a “Mitchi boom”).

The wedding that broke with tradition – Prince Akihito’s bride of choice was the first commoner to marry into the Japanese Imperial Family, finally took place at a traditional Shinto ceremony on 10 April 1959. The wedding procession was followed in the streets of Tokyo by more than 500,000 people spread over a 8.8km route, while parts of the wedding were televised, thus making it the first imperial wedding to be made available for public viewer ship in Japan, drawing about 15 million viewers. In accordance with tradition, Michiko received a personal emblem: the white birch of Japan upon admission to the imperial family.

Dr. Shinzo Koizumi, who supervised the Crown Prince’s education for many years, said of this marriage: “The Crown Prince chose her, and so did we.”

- Aditha 


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