The current and future emperors of Japan — Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko (seated) with Crown Prince Naruhito and Crown Princess Masako. (Courtesy Hawaii Hochi)
The current and future emperors of Japan — Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko (seated) with Crown Prince Naruhito and Crown Princess Masako. (Courtesy Hawaii Hochi)

Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko Have Redefined the Imperial Family

Kevin Y. Kawamoto
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald

After the last of their three visits in the 1960s, Akihito and Michiko did not visit Hawai‘i again for 27 years. When they did return again, much had changed in their lives. By 1994, they had raised three children to adulthood, all born in the 1960s: sons Naruhito (born Feb. 23, 1960) and Akishino (born Nov. 30, 1965) and daughter Sayako (born April 18, 1969). The crown prince and crown princess continued their official duties, which were varied and extensive within Japan and beyond. For whatever reason, however, their overseas travel itinerary did not include Hawai‘i for almost three decades.

During that long absence, one pivotal event occurred that dramatically changed their lives forever.

On Jan. 7, 1989, Emperor Hirohito died of duodenal cancer at the age of 87. The next day, the Heisei Era began with the ascension of Akihito as the 125th emperor of Japan and Michiko as empress. (Empress Nagako became Empress Dowager, the title for the widow of an emperor, and lived out the rest of her life in the Imperial Palace until her own passing on June 16, 2000, at the age of 97. She was the longest-serving empress consort in Japanese history.)

Akihito’s enthronement ceremony was held Nov. 12, 1990, and ordained by ancient Shintö rituals. Visiting royalty, dignitaries and heads of state joined their Japanese counterparts and the Japanese people in wishing the new emperor and empress an auspicious reign, albeit one without overt political power.

Chapter 1, Article 1, of the 1947 postwar Japanese constitution states that Japanese emperors are to be a “symbol of the State and of the unity of the People.” But even in that capacity as Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko have aptly demonstrated, they can have a positive influence on both domestic and international relations.

In early 1994, it was reported that Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko might stop in Hawai‘i in June at the end of an 11-city, two-week goodwill tour of the U.S. mainland. As plans were finalized, Hawai‘i prepared to welcome back the imperial couple in their new roles as emperor and empress. The U.S. mainland portion of the goodwill tour commenced and went well, according to news reports, despite a scattering of protests relating to Japan’s role in World War II more than a half-century earlier. Hawai‘i was the imperial couple’s final stop before heading back to Japan.

The emperor and empress landed in Honolulu on June 23, 1994, to a royal welcome. Many in the Islands had followed the imperial couple through the news media as they matured from young adults to late middle age.

For many Americans, Emperor Akihito’s and Empress Michiko’s visit to the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific at Punchbowl on June 24, 1994, was a major step in addressing the lingering wounds of war. At the solemn and dignified ceremony attended by then-Gov. John Waihe‘e, first lady Lynne Waihe‘e and senior American military officials, among others, the emperor laid a white chrysanthemum wreath in honor of Americans who made the ultimate sacrifice, including those who gave their lives during World War II. Emperor Akihito bowed for an extended period to honor the war dead.

A local newspaper piece reflecting on the top stories of 1994 quoted University of Hawai‘i modern Japanese history professor Sharon Miniciello as saying, “The fact that he (Emperor Akihito) wanted to do something and the depth of his demeanor there (at Punchbowl cemetery) was very important.” Miniciello, who passed away in 2018, was an early recipient of the Crown Prince Akihito Scholarship and later director of the UH Mänoa Center for Japanese Studies.

Other highlights of the trip included a garden party at the Japanese Consulate attended by 1,000 invited guests and a tree-planting on the consulate grounds; a lü‘au dinner at Washington Place for about 100 guests with a menu that included laulau, poi, kälua pig, lomi salmon and other delectables; a visit to the East-West Center to tour the Hawaii Imin International Conference Center at Jefferson Hall, established in honor of Japanese immigrants to Hawai‘i and, of course, to see how the Coral Shower Tree that Akihito had planted in the Japanese garden in 1964 was coming along.

He and the empress also visited the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai‘i, where they met with recipients of the Crown Prince Akihito Scholarship as well as current and past Cherry Blossom queens and other invited guests. Among the guests was Alice Otaguro, whose Mänoa home Michiko had visited during their 1960 visit to the Islands. The 88-year-old Otaguro almost missed Michiko’s 1994 visit. By then, her husband, the orchid grower, had passed on and Mrs. Otaguro was having a difficult time getting around on her own. But then she received a phone call from another guest, Colleen Kelly. In 1960, as a 13-year-old student at Palama Japanese Language School, Kelly had greeted Akihito in Japanese. When Kelly heard that Mrs. Otaguro was not planning to attend the meet-and-greet at JCCH, she contacted her and offered to take her to the event. Because of that, they both had a chance to meet the imperial couple, for which Mrs. Otaguro was deeply grateful.

During his visits over the decades, Emperor Akihito had developed an appreciation for not only Hawai‘i’s rich multiethnic society, but also for the achievements of its Americans of Japanese ancestry in business, culture, education, politics and other sectors. Former Gov. George Ariyoshi, for example, has been an invited guest at royal visits. As the first governor of Asian ancestry in the United States and Hawai‘i’s longest-serving governor, Ariyoshi is often regarded as an example of how the Nisei managed to achieve success in a relatively short period of time through education, hard work, sacrifice, loyalty and perseverance — values their Japanese parents instilled in them at an early age. People of all ages turned out to greet the emperor and empress, eager to demonstrate how the local population had preserved and perpetuated Japanese culture even from afar.

Despite the passage of time since the first waves of Japanese immigrants arrived in Hawai‘i in the late 1800s, Japanese culture and customs — and support for positive U.S.-Japan relations — have remained strong, as evidenced by the numerous organizations, activities and events that continue to thrive in the Islands.

Cullen Hayashida, Ph.D., a sociologist with a longtime interest in Japan and gerontology, said Japanese culture has continued to thrive in Hawai‘i for more than a century largely due to “positive infrastructural support” through social institutions such as religious, cultural, governmental, educational, nonprofit and media organizations.

“The Star-Advertiser, for example, has a weekly two-page section on Japanese life,” Hayashida said. He also pointed to media outlets such as The Hawai‘i Herald, Wasabi, KIKU-TV and NGN that keep Japanese heritage alive. Additionally, the ease and affordability of traveling to Japan has made it a popular travel destination for Hawai‘i people of all ethnicities.

The Last Visit

Another 15 years passed before the imperial couple returned to Hawai‘i.

In 2009, the Canadian government invited Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko to participate in the 80th anniversary commemoration of Canada’s first diplomatic mission to Japan. The trip included stops in Ottawa, Toronto, Victoria and Vancouver. They stopped in Hawai‘i for three days on their return to Japan and took part in the 50th anniversary celebration of the establishment of the Crown Prince Akihito Scholarship Foundation (see “Sidebar” on page 10). They spent July 14 to 16 in Hawai‘i — two days on O‘ahu and one on Hawai‘i Island, where they attended a reception at Parker Ranch.

Their only public appearance on O‘ahu was at Kapi‘olani Park, where they met with dignitaries and special guests, including now-retired Hawaii Hochi president and publisher Paul Yempuku. In 2009, the Japanese-language Hawaii Hochi was three years away from reaching the centennial of its founding by Fred Kinzaburo Makino in 1912. Yempuku told the emperor and empress that he was committed to keeping the newspaper running at least until its 100th anniversary. He managed to keep that promise, despite the challenges facing Japanese language newspapers in the United States. To this day, the Hochi continues to publish a newspaper five days a week.

The couple again paid their respects to Americans killed in war at a wreath-laying ceremony at Punchbowl the day after arriving, enjoyed lunch with Gov. Linda Lingle at Washington Place and then attended an elegant dinner banquet at the Hilton Hawaiian Village that included the presentation of special gifts, such as a handcrafted, model-sized replica of the Polynesian voyaging canoe Höküle‘a. After the banquet, the emperor and empress met with Crown Prince Akihito Scholars in person.

In a letter to the scholarship recipients the following month, then-foundation chairman Howard Hamamoto wrote: “Their Majesties were pleased with the entire program which was attended by 1,600 guests together with dignitaries from both Japan and the U.S. It was an outstanding event in all respects. My only regret is that Ralph Honda was not with us that evening, but we were able to honor his memory through the presentation of special awards named after him.”

Honda, who died in May 2004, was among the scholarship foundation founders and its longtime chairman. Hamamoto worked closely with Honda before taking the reins as chairman. The foundation forged a close relationship with the Japan-America Society of Hawai‘i and its past president Edwin Hawkins, who served from 2007 to 2014. Hawkins now heads the city’s Office of Economic Development. In a recent interview with the Herald, he reflected on the meaning and significance of Emperor Akihito’s close and special relationship with Hawai‘i.

Hawkins noted the dramatic change Hawai‘i has undergone since Akihito first visited in 1953. It was much less developed than it is today with only a few hotels in Waikïkï. He was likely reassured by the outpouring of aloha he received from the local community, many of whom were Japanese. Akihito also probably felt the beauty of the Islands was matched by the inner beauty of its residents.

Emperor Akihito and then-Hawaii Hochi president and publisher Paul Yempuku exchange a handshake at Kapi‘olani Park, where the imperial couple met with community leaders. Yempuku promised the emperor that he would continue publishing the Hawaii Hochi Japanese-language newspaper at least until its 100th anniversary in 2012. (Hawaii Hochi photo)
Emperor Akihito and then-Hawaii Hochi president and publisher Paul Yempuku exchange a handshake at Kapi‘olani Park, where the imperial couple met with community leaders. Yempuku promised the emperor that he would continue publishing the Hawaii Hochi Japanese-language newspaper at least until its 100th anniversary in 2012. (Hawaii Hochi photo)

“This was like a ‘coming out’ for the Crown Prince,” Hawkins said of the 19-year-old Akihito’s first steps into unfamiliar territory before the six-month journey ahead of him. His first impressions were of people who were “very welcoming” and culturally understanding. “He felt very comfortable when he came here,” Hawkins said.

Hawkins has had the opportunity to observe Akihito up close. He described the emperor as quiet and dignified and willing to get close to people. This was particularly evident in the way Akihito has interacted with Japanese victims of natural disasters, such as those who were devastated by the massive earthquake and tsunami in March 2011. Akihito, wearing relatively casual attire for a person of his status, was photographed (with Michiko) kneeling alongside Japanese citizens, leaning in close to them to listen and offering words of encouragement and comfort. It is a posture that was never displayed by previous Japanese emperors and a reality that has not been lost on the Japanese public, which has great affection for the couple.

Hawkins also noted that Akihito, unlike his father, does not have a direct connection to the Japan’s wartime experience, as Akihito was just a boy when the war ended.

Many news reports have noted how Akihito has spent much of his adult life trying to heal the wounds of war and to open doors to improved relations with other countries, including previous enemies of Japan, or with people who suffered under Japan’s military occupation.

When Emperor Akihito abdicates on April 30, a new era in the imperial family will commence. The future Emperor Naruhito and Empress Masako will have the opportunity to further rebalance the social forces of tradition and change. Akihito and Michiko have traveled a long road together since they took on that duty. They now seem ready to let the next generation continue on the journey that has a 2,600-year history and a future, hopefully, characterized by a beautiful harmony.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here