JAPANESE Princess Sayako, the emperor's only daughter, married a commoner at age 36 in an eagerly awaited wedding last Tuesday, losing her status in the world's oldest monarchy, which is bracing for change.
Thousands of well-wishers lined the roads and royal minders bowed deeply as the princess was driven off in a black limousine from the palace to a nearby central Tokyo hotel for her new life as a full-time housewife.
"Many people feel close to the princess because she is descending to a commoner's rank," said Hiroshi Inamura, 68, who camped out all night to be the first to write his name in the congratulatory book.
Wearing a simple Western-style white dress and a single-strand pearl necklace, the princess walked several steps behind the groom as they were led to a specially-built Shinto altar inside the 118-year-old Imperial Hotel.
Sayako, who had previously insisted she would marry at her own pace, exchanged vows and a ceremonial glass of sake wine with Yoshiki Kuroda, a 40-year-old urban planner.
The princess is the first Japanese royal woman in modern times to wed in her 30s. Japan is struggling to counter a constantly-declining birthrate as more young people choose to put off families for the sake of their careers and lifestyles.
Holding a fan with a tuft, the princess entered the Shinto-style ceremony after her parents, who broke royal tradition by attending their daughter's wedding. Emperor Akihito wore a morning coat and Empress Michiko sported a shiny golden robe.
Crown Princess Masako, who has shunned the public eye for almost two years due to stress, also showed up to see off her sister-in-law.
Masako has been under intense pressure to produce a male heir to the Chrysanthemum Throne because her only child, three-year-old Princess Aiko, under current rules cannot become Japan's monarch.
The male-only succession rules also mean Sayako must leave the imperial family, becoming "Mrs. Kuroda" upon her marriage to the metropolitan government employee, who was a childhood friend of her brother.
As no boy has been born to the royal family since 1965, Japan is studying allowing women to assume the throne and letting princesses keep their royal status after marriage. But any change would come too late for Sayako.
The princess plans to quit her job as a part-time bird researcher to marry Kuroda.
"I feel deeply that this is a happy event as the princess is marrying after a Prince Charming appeared," said Satoshi Yamagishi, who heads the Yamashina Institute for Ornithology where Sayako worked.
"My next prayer is that a stork will bring a present," he told public broadcaster NHK.
Michiko, who was the first commoner to marry into the monarchy, raised Sayako on the expectation that she would leave royal life upon marriage.
The princess has been preparing for her life in middle-class Tokyo, taking driving lessons and receiving a one-time government payment of 1.3 million dollars as an allowance for becoming a commoner.
The wedding, which in protocol terms is that of a commoner, was not accompanied by the grand, public ceremonies seen for former career diplomat Masako Owada's wedding to Crown Prince Naruhito in 1993.
Later in the day, the princess-turned-commoner donned a kimono once worn by her mother and attend a champagne reception with 150 guests, including her parents.
Sayako is the youngest child of Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko and the last of their three children to wed.