A framed collection of Emperor Akihito’s baby and childhood photos and his parents is part of the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii’s “Okage Sama De” exhibit. (Photo by Kevin Kawamoto)
A framed collection of Emperor Akihito’s baby and childhood photos and his parents is part of the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii’s “Okage Sama De” exhibit. (Photo by Kevin Kawamoto)

As a Young Crown Prince, Akihito Helped America to See the Human Face of Japan

Kevin Y. Kawamoto
Special to the Hawai‘i Herald

Enthusiastic waves of aloha greeted Emperor Akihito during each of his official visits to Hawai‘i, beginning in April 1953 when he was just barely an adult and about to embark on a whirlwind six-month tour of the United States, Canada and 10 European countries: Belgium, Denmark, England, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain and Switzerland. The centerpiece of that tour was the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, who had succeeded her father, King George VI, as monarch of the British Empire following his death in February 1952. Her coronation was held the following year, on June 2, 1953, with then-Crown Prince Akihito representing his father, Emperor Hirohito, and the nation of Japan.

Dignitaries and members of royal families from around the world traveled to England to witness the pomp and circumstance of the coronation in London’s Westminster Abbey. Akihito, then 19 years old, had only recently celebrated his Seijin no Hi, or Coming of Age Day, a centuries-old tradition in Japan in which young people turning 19 mark their passage into adulthood. The ceremony was combined with his formal investiture as the crown prince of Japan.

Photos of Akihito from this period reveal a friendly, boyish face, although numerous news reports on the trip indicate that Akihito presented himself as a poised, refined public figure, easy to talk with, and eager to learn about the world and its diverse cultures and people. It also set the course for his future role as an emissary of international goodwill and the fresh face of a new generation in post-World War II Japan.

Many writers have compared the countenance of Akihito with his father, Hirohito, noting the son’s more relaxed and approachable manner in public. They credit Akihito and his marriage to Michiko with softening the public image of Japan’s imperial family at a time when Japan was trying to recover from its wartime reputation and join the ranks of peace-seeking nations. It was an important role to play on the international stage, one that helped to heal festering wounds from World War II and open doors that enabled Japan to align itself with democratic nations rebuilding their economies through interdependence rather than conflict.

But what a responsibility to foist upon the shoulders of someone so young! By all accounts examined for this story, Akihito was up to the challenge and his unassuming manner and ability to connect with all manner of people endeared him to those he met both inside and outside of Japan, a quality of his personality that has not seemed to change, even as he approaches retirement in his 85th year of life.

First Stop: Honolulu, 1953

Significantly, Akihito’s first steps on American soil were taken in the territory of Hawai‘i. He sailed from Yokohama to Honolulu abroad an American passenger liner, the SS President Wilson. On the ship, the crown prince attended a cocktail party; played mahjong, table tennis and shögi (board game referred to as Japanese “chess”); and enjoyed an international night fashion show put on for the passengers. He had a long journey ahead that would take him across thousands of miles on land, over sea and by air. But his first stop was Honolulu, where he and his entourage disembarked for a relatively brief stopover before continuing on to the West Coast and then to Canada.

The ship approached Honolulu Harbor at approximately 8 a.m. on April 6, 1953. Akihito received a spirited welcome the moment he disembarked and felt the warmth characterizing Hawai‘i’s tropical climate and the hearts of people waiting to greet him. According to newspaper accounts, more than 8,000 people crowded around Pier 8 near Aloha Tower to greet Akihito. They lined the sidewalks and scurried to areas where they thought they could get a better glimpse of the youthful prince. As for Akihito, he commented that he was glad to finally stand on solid ground after seeing nothing but ocean since his departure from Japan.

An article in the Honolulu Advertiser described the crowd as “patient and good natured” and included many elderly Japanese men and women “all dressed in their best clothes for the occasion.” Hundreds of people carried cameras, including some who brought along stepladders to get a better view. The story said the crowds overflowed into the streets, requiring motorcycle police officers to “herd” them back on to the curb.

In a story published April 7, 1953, Honolulu Advertiser writer Bob Krauss noted, “Less than eight years ago the United States and Japan were at war. Yesterday, the heir-apparent to the Japanese throne set foot on American soil for the first time.” Krauss described the thousands of people that crowded around the pier and its vicinity, the Japanese Consulate in Nu‘uanu and at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, where the crown prince stayed during his short visit. Krauss interviewed some of Akihito’s fellow passengers from the voyage. One person said he played chess with the crown prince and that he was “very popular with all the passengers.” He added that Akihito played table tennis with his daughter.

Another passenger expressed sympathy for Akihito, given all the media attention he had to endure from the moment he disembarked from the ship. Krauss wrote that nearly a hundred reporters and photographers “dogged the prince’s heels all day.” The sympathetic fellow passenger said, “Well, I think they ought to leave the poor lad alone.”

For better or worse, the intense media and public interest in Akihito’s life — at home and abroad — would follow him (and his future family members) for the rest of his life as crown prince and later as emperor. His stopover in Hawai‘i provided a taste of this public scrutiny outside of Japan, with onlookers and the media taking note of his every move and word. Possibly, the overwhelmingly warm reception he received in Honolulu, however, reassured him that the rest of his journey might, likewise, be embraced by the many new people and places he was destined to encounter as he traveled from city to city in different parts of the Western Hemisphere over the next six months.

As it turned out, the enthusiastic reception in Hawai‘i was a preview of what was to greet him about six months later, on his return trip home from his whirlwind tour. On that return visit, he was able to spend more time in the Islands, attending gatherings with local dignitaries, of course, but also meeting working class residents and, in particular, the older Issei. Throughout his life, Akihito seemed to have a special fondness for older people, taking time to greet them personally — often unplanned and unscripted — when he noticed them in the crowd.

The Journey Before the Journey

Akihito was born Dec. 23, 1933, the first son of Emperor Hirohito and his wife, Empress Nagako. (In accordance with Japanese tradition, Akihito’s parents are now referred to as Emperor Showa and Empress Kojun, honorific names that were given to them after death.) Akihito wasn’t their first child. Four sisters preceded his birth, one of whom died in infancy.

Prior to Akihito’s birth, the lack of a male child raised concerns about who would succeed Emperor Hirohito since the rule of succession then — and now, as well — only allowed for males to ascend the Chrysanthemum Throne. Despite pressure from government officials to do so, Hirohito chose not to father a male child with a concubine, as previous emperors had done in similar circumstances. After nine years of marriage and no doubt a fair amount of nail-biting among those anxious about the future of the Japanese monarchy, Akihito was born to much fanfare and celebration that poured into the streets of Japan and around the Imperial Palace. The Japanese community in Hawai‘i also took note of the birth, especially the Issei, who, like other ethnic groups, took interest in the developments occurring back in their home country.

Akihito was removed from the direct care of his parents at the age of 3 and was taught and raised by tutors and a retinue of attendants to prepare him for his future role and work as crown prince and, someday, as emperor. He was allowed limited visits with his parents. For a period of time toward the end of World War II, when Tökyö was under attack, he was taken from the confines of his palace to wait out the war at a distance. What exactly he thought of being raised by imperial household staff is probably a matter kept close to his heart, but it is worth noting that his own three children, including his first son and soon-to-be emperor Naruhito, were not removed from their parents’ (Akihito and Michiko) care, a decision that was considered groundbreaking for its time.

An early influence in Akihito’s young life was his American tutor, Elizabeth Gray Vining, who came to Japan after the war to school Akihito in English. The tutoring was ordered by Emperor Hirohito, perhaps realizing that Japan’s next emperor needed to engage more with the international community to build ties of friendship as the world recovered from a disastrous and destructive war that had cost tens of millions of human lives.

Vining was a Quaker and a pacifist. In her book, “Windows for the Crown Prince,” about her life with Akihito and Japan’s imperial family from 1946 to 1950, she wrote that she undertook the challenge with the hope that she could “make some small contribution to the cause of peace among nations.”

A gifted and prolific writer, Vining provides the reader with a rare insider’s view of life behind the so-called “Chrysanthemum curtain.” As a foreigner in Japan, she had remarkable access to the imperial family and high-ranking staff. She made recommendations about how she thought the crown prince should be educated and exposed to society, which weren’t always appreciated by those who had a say in such matters. But Vining clearly developed a close and lasting relationship with Akihito, who stayed at her home in Philadelphia for three days on his 1953 tour. She was also invited to his wedding ceremony when he married Michiko Shoda. It was clear that Vining did more than teach the crown prince English: She used literature and conversation as a way to open a window to a world beyond the walls of the Imperial Palace and judging from what she wrote in her book, she likely had an influence on other members of the imperial family, as well.

After four years, she told the crown prince that she felt it was time for her to return to the United States. In her book, she described his reaction as looking “sober” after some moments of silence. He asked her if she would return to Japan sometime. She replied that she hoped so because she would always be “a little bit homesick for Japan.” But then she told him that she hoped to see him in America one day, which lit up his face.

“I said I hoped that he would study there, if only for a little while, because he could understand the people and the life so much better than just by traveling about and looking at it from the outside,” Vining wrote. “Again the look of pleasure spread over his face, as he said that he would like that.”

Ellizabeth Gray Vining, an American, was recruited by Emperor Hirohito to tutor Crown Prince Akihito (pictured here with Vining). (Hawaii Hochi archives)
Ellizabeth Gray Vining, an American, was recruited by Emperor Hirohito to tutor Crown Prince Akihito (pictured here with Vining). (Hawaii Hochi archives)

Hawai‘i Welcomes Akihito’s Return

Akihito’s six-month tour through parts of the United States, Canada and Europe was a success at every turn, according to news accounts. He took a train across the Canadian Rockies and saw Niagara Falls from the Canadian side of the U.S.-Canada border. He saw the Paris Central Station in France, the Vatican in Italy, and met dignitaries and heads of state on nearly every leg of his journey. Akihito also met with Japanese communities abroad during several of his stops and learned how the people were adapting to living outside of Japan. He visited the United Nations and represented his father and the nation of Japan at Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation. In short, the trip was an extended educational experience for Akihito, giving him a real-life window on the world.

As the tour drew to a close, he fulfilled his promise to return to Hawai‘i before heading back to Japan. This time, it was more than just a brief stopover.

Akihito’s return was delayed by about two hours when the plane he was on was forced to return to San Francisco due to an overheated engine. Upon landing in Honolulu on Oct. 8, 1953, he was greeted at the airport by Gov. Samuel Wilder King and Mrs. King. It had earlier been suggested that the crown prince might want to rest in Hawai‘i after his long trip. That was not to be, however.

He had a full schedule, attending a garden party at Washington Place the day he landed and a reception at the Japanese Consulate the next day. Then-U.S. Vice President Richard M. Nixon happened to be in town and the two met at the Washington Place function, which also was attended by about 1,500 guests.

Some 5,000 people were expected for the Japanese Consulate reception. As it turned out, a crowd of 13,000 filled the grounds. A special tent-covered section was reserved for older Issei residents, who were fortunate to see the crown prince up close and personal as he walked over to their seating area. Akihito was treated to traditional Japanese performances, including a Ryükyüan (Okinawan) dance, and Japanese sumö wrestling, which Akihito enjoyed. In fact, he stayed an hour longer than scheduled at the reception so he could watch the sumö matches.

He spent the remainder of his time going deep-sea fishing — but didn’t catch anything — visiting the pineapple fields in Wahiawä, taking in the view from the Nu‘uanu Pali and relaxing on Waikïkï Beach.

Crown Prince Akihito departed Honolulu for Tökyö two days later, on Oct. 10, 1953. Like a good Japanese son and brother, he returned with omiyage (gifts) for his family members. A reporter asked a member of Akihito’s entourage what the crown prince had gotten for his father. The diplomatic reply was that Emperor Hirohito should be the first to find out (and not the reporter).

A photograph after Akihito returned home showed him with his parents and siblings as they all looked over a photo album with pictures from his travels. The caption said Akihito was sharing an account of his travels with members of the imperial family.

Akihito was reportedly the first member of his family to travel overseas on an airplane, and even though his flight from San Francisco to Hawai‘i was delayed due to engine trouble, a member of his entourage said the crown prince was not afraid of flying. That was a good thing, because in the years ahead, he would travel extensively, building friendly relations with other countries, more than 50 different countries in all, according to the Imperial Household Agency.

Thus ended Akihito’s first trip to the United States and to Hawai‘i. But it would not be his last. As crown prince, Akihito returned to Hawai‘i three more times — in 1960, 1964 and 1967. On those trips, however, he had a traveling companion — his wife Michiko, whom he had married in 1959.

The 1960, 1964 and 1967 Visits

Akihito’s two trips to Hawai‘i in 1953 set the mold, it seems, for his visits in 1960, 1964 and 1967. On those visits, he came with Crown Princess Michiko, whom he married on April 10, 1959. The storied tale of how they met, became engaged and were married in an elaborate ceremony steeped in Japanese customs, rituals and traditions has been told elsewhere. Suffice it to say that the crown prince found his life partner.

Michiko has served the Japanese people well throughout the more than six decades of her membership in Japan’s imperial family, despite the challenges and strains of such a demanding role. She was not raised under the intense scrutiny and control of so many people around her. A so-called “commoner,” not a child of royal or noble birth as previous crown princesses had been (including her mother-in-law, Empress Nagako), she enjoyed a more freewheeling lifestyle prior to marrying into the imperial family. A biographical profile on the emperor on the Imperial Household Agency’s website describes their marriage as “one of the happiest days in the history of post-war Japan.”

Hawai‘i sent a wedding gift of hand-carved wood serving implements to Akihito and Michiko through the Japanese Consulate in Honolulu. With the permission of the Imperial Household Agency, a group of business and community leaders in Hawai‘i established a scholarship foundation in Akihito’s name to serve as a lasting legacy in honor of his marriage and special relationship to Hawai‘i. (See Page 10 “Sidebar” on the Crown Prince Akihito Scholarship Foundation)

On all of Akihito’s future visits to Hawai‘i, he was accompanied by Crown Princess Michiko. On their Sept. 21-23, 1960, visit, they were hosted by Gov. William Quinn and Mrs. Quinn at a Washington Place reception attended by 800 people. “And every one of them, young and old, was completely captivated by the handsome young couple,” reported the Honolulu Advertiser. Gov. Quinn had planned to help them navigate through the crowd and shield them from too much contact, but the Crown Prince and Princess, “smiling and friendly, extended their hands repeatedly and chatted easily with person after person until they had made a complete circuit of the crowd.”

In another report, Michiko was described as “gentle, quiet and extremely gracious,” as well as charming, beautiful and captivating up close. When she visited the Otaguros at their home in Mänoa to see Mr. Otaguro’s collection of orchids, curious and excited neighbors gathered around to catch a glimpse of the crown princess. Mr. Otaguro showed her a variety of corsages and asked her which orchid she liked best. After telling him, he substituted it for the one she was wearing.

Akihito’s and Michiko’s arrival in Honolulu was followed by a motorcade through the streets of Honolulu. Crowds lined the streets to wave at them, including a group of picketers who were on strike. They put their signs down and applauded as the motorcade passed by.

The couple laid a wreath at the National Cemetery of the Pacific at Punchbowl in a formal ceremony that has become a part of all visits by members of the imperial family when visiting Hawai‘i.

On their 1964 visit, they were in Honolulu for only 20 hours. A newspaper reporter noted that admiring and respectful crowds followed them everywhere they went. The trip included a visit to the East-West Center in Gov. John Burns’ limousine for a program planned just for them. After listening to several speeches and presentations indoors, they ventured outside, where the crown prince planted a small Coral Shower Tree in the center’s Japanese garden. They also stopped at Kapi‘olani Park to visit a tree they had planted during their 1960 visit to Hawai‘i and strolled briefly in the park. At the Japanese Consulate, happy crowds gathered to cheer on the imperial couple. They also made a few unscheduled stops, keeping their security detail on their toes.

May 29-30, 1967, was their last visit to Hawai‘i as crown prince and princess. It would be 27 years — 1994 — before they visited Hawai‘i again. By then, his father, Emperor Hirohito, had died, and Akihito and Michiko had ascended the throne to become emperor and empress of Japan.

The couple received a warm and enthusiastic welcome during their 1967 visit. Akihito, an avid researcher in marine biology and, in particular, the goby fish, spent time at the Waikiki Aquarium, observing the marine life there and asking many questions. (A species of coral-reef goby fish that inhabits the western Pacific Ocean — namely Exyrias Akihito — was named in honor of Akihito.) While in the area, he again visited the tree he had planted in Kapi‘olani Park during their 1960 visit.

Then-Crown Prince Akihito aboard the SS Woodrow Wilson when it arrived in Honolulu in April 1953. (Courtesy Kevin Kawamoto)
Then-Crown Prince Akihito aboard the SS Woodrow Wilson when it arrived in Honolulu in April 1953. (Courtesy Kevin Kawamoto)

He also visited the Bishop Museum and toured its exhibits, including the museum’s fish collections, which included some gobies. Then-museum director Dr. Roland Force commented to the media that Akihito had “a very scientific mind.” He later rejoined Princess Michiko at Foster Botanical Garden, where they were given a tour and allowed to collect specimens to take back to Japan. After lunch at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, where they were staying, they greeted hundreds of people at the Japanese Consulate before heading back to Japan. They may not have known it at the time, but their next visit to Hawai‘i would be a long way off, and in the ensuing years, their lives would change dramatically.


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