THE Japanese imperial household is becoming more open to the people. Last weekend, the nation was astir at the news that Prince Aya, the second son of the emperor and the empress, plans to marry his college sweetheart.
The bride-to-be is 22-year-old Kiko Kawashima, a psychology graduate student at Gakushuin University and eldest daughter of an economics professor at the school. She first met the 23-year-old prince in 1985.
The Imperial Household Council meets Sept. 12 to approve the engagement formally. The marriage will take place next spring at the earliest.
Few here thought that Prince Aya would break tradition by marrying before his older brother, Crown Prince Hiro.
In the past, it was hard for an imperial family member to choose a spouse independently. Lineage was carefully examined. Emperor Akihito was the first to marry a commoner, the current Empress Michiko, whom he met at a resort-area tennis court. When the plan was announced 30 years ago, some traditionalists resisted.
But times have changed, and the people's response to the young couple has been warm.
Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu has already voiced his pleasure.
``I would like to express my congratulations with the people of Japan from the bottom of my heart,'' Mr. Kaifu said last weekend.
Miss Kawashima spent her childhood in the United States and Austria and speaks fluent English and German. Like Prince Aya, she is a good tennis player and skier, and also knowledgeable in Chinese. She lives with her parents and her younger brother in housing provided for professors by the university.
According to press reports, the couple has known each other through activities of a nature-and-culture study group, and through Prince Aya's circle of friends at the Imperial Palace tennis courts. Prince Aya returns soon to Britain's Oxford University, where he is studying zoology. He plans to conclude his studies next June.
Prince Aya's marriage likely will accelerate the speed at which the imperial institution becomes more accessible to the people.
An indication of increasing openness came earlier this month when the emperor and the empress met reporters for the first time at a carefully controlled press conference. The imperial couple refrained from commenting on delicate issues. However, questions included the late emperor's war responsibility, the separation of church and state, and freedom of speech - subjects which likely would not have been included in past lists of questions.
``The respect shown by the imperial family to the wishes of the prince reflects the growth of a democratic spirit in our nation's most eminent representatives,'' Japan's leading daily Yomiuri Shimbun said in its editorial last Saturday.