TOKYO (AP) _ From commoner to royal consort, Michiko, who becomes Japan's new empress, has accepted a life in the public spotlight and devotion to the imperial family.

Michiko, 54, is a onetime college valedictorian and the daughter of a wealthy but non-royal flour miller. She fired the imagination of millions and set imperial precedent when Crown Prince Akihito handpicked her to be his wife.

Their storybook romance is enough to rival the courtship of Prince Charles and Princess Diana.

''A girl who has both parents living, is good-looking, not too tall, but slender, able to make witty remarks, a sports and music lover, and capable of playing hostess at receptions,'' are the qualities Akihito is said to have specifically sought in his future wife.

''The girl I marry need not be of imperial or noble blood. ... You may not be concerned about such things, but if a selection is made from a limited field, I feel the result will take me away further from the people,'' he reportedly told a friend.

Michiko was born Oct. 20, 1934, and graduated from the exclusive Sacred Heart University with a degree in English literature. She is a fluent English- speaker, an avid tennis player and an accomplished harpist and pianist.

They met for the first time on a tennis court in 1957, but it was not until 15 months and many phone calls later - imperial protocol prohibits dating - that they were wed in a simple Shinto ceremony.

Michiko and her family initially refused Akihito's proposal made through his chamberlains. She was packed off to Europe and the United States to attend a college alumni conference in Brussels before returning to Tokyo.

''I have just spent in my recent world tour all the money my parents had prepared for my trousseau. Your Highness, can you consider marrying a girl with no belongings except one suitcase?'' she is said to have asked of Akihito during one of their phone conversations after her return.

He fired back: ''Why, certainly, yes, ma'am, I do consider marrying you even if your possessions amount to just one suitcase.''

Michiko finally relented, ''not because he is a prince, but because his sincerity won me over. I do love him,'' she said.

Akihito's choice ended a six-year hunt by the imperial chamberlains searching for the perfect wife for their prince.

Their marriage on April 10, 1959, when he was 25 and she was 24, was celebrated with much fanfare. Nearly half a million people gathered to cheer their horse-drawn cavalcade while thousands more bought their first television sets to watch the ceremonies.

The government announced an amnesty for some 210,000 people charged with minor crimes and one newspaper even came out with flower-scented editions to celebrate the occasion.

Michiko and Akihito have often travled abroad, representing the emperor and empress to promote international friendship and good will. She also attends state functions and is honorary vice-president of the Japanese Red Cross.

In March 1986 she underwent surgery to remove a tumor in her uterus after suffering from anemia. The nature of the tumor was not made public, but Michiko has resumed an active life, accompanying Akihito on a state visit to the United States in October 1987.

On that tour she made a point of seeing Louisa May Alcott House in Concord, New Hampshire, because the 19th-century author's ''Little Women'' is popular in Japan, and she knew TV coverage of her visit would show Japanese schoolchildren what the Alcott house was like.

In Tokyo, Michiko's life has centered around the crown prince's Togu Palace near the moated imperial compound.

''I have held and will continue to hold important the words of my father when I left home - that I should live my life at one heart with the emperor and crown prince,'' Michiko is reported to have said.

In another break from royal tradition, Michiko and Akihito raised their two sons and one daughter on their own instead of handing them over to chamberlains and nurses, as Akihito's parents did when he was 3.

Michiko always ''sets high value on tenderness in her daily life,'' Akihito once commented.