Soon-to-be emperor and empress, Naruhito and his wife Masako, greet an elderly woman. (Courtesy of Hawaii Hochi)
Soon-to-be emperor and empress, Naruhito and his wife Masako, greet an elderly woman. (Courtesy of Hawaii Hochi)

Each Generation Brings Change to the Chrysanthemum Throne

Kevin Y. Kawamoto
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald

When Emperor Akihito was born on Dec. 23, 1933, in Tökyö, his father, Emperor Hirohito, announced that his first son would be called Prince Tsugu-no-Miya — Prince Tsugu, for short. The naming was in keeping with the Japanese imperial family’s tradition of giving its youngest members a personal title.

News of the prince’s birth was surely of interest to Hawai‘i’s Japanese community, as there were still many Issei alive who were interested in the goings-on in their homeland.

An Associated Press story out of Tökyö published in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin described the happy occasion in which more than a million people turned out in honor of the royal birth. It reported that “thousands of lanterns glittered in a parade toward the palace tonight.” Ceremonial rituals were performed with the newborn baby “to influence the character and destiny of the future ruler.” One photo taken near the Imperial Palace shows what appears to be tens of thousands of well-wishers, packed closely together, in a space the size of multiple football fields.

To understand the significance of Akihito’s birth, one must go back a generation.

Akihito’s father was Emperor Hirohito (known posthumously as Emperor Showa); his mother was Empress Nagako (known posthumously as Empress Kojun). When Hirohito’s grandfather, Emperor Meiji, died in July 1912, Hirohito’s father (known posthumously as Taisho) ascended the throne and Hirohito became the crown prince.

In January 1924, he married Nagako Kuni in an arranged marriage. She was the daughter of a Japanese prince and a distant cousin of Hirohito. She became Crown Princess Nagako, but not for very long. Less than three years later, upon the death of Emperor Taisho on Dec. 25, 1926, Hirohito became the 124th emperor of Japan. His wife became Empress Nagako. It was a role she had been prepared for since the age of 14, when she was selected to marry Hirohito.

Japan’s laws of succession to the imperial throne allow only male descendants of the imperial family to become emperor. That was cause for concern in the larger imperial family, as more than nine years into their marriage, Empress Nagako had only given birth to girls — four of them: Shigeko, Sachiko, Kazuko and Atsuko.

Previous Japanese emperors had access to concubines, or imperial court women, with whom the emperor could father a male child to ensure an heir to the throne was produced. Although it was considered an acceptable practice at the time, Hirohito made the extraordinary decision to do away with the concubine system and dismissed all of his concubines. Even under pressure from his courtiers to bring the concubines back, Hirohito refused.

Three generations of emperors: Hirohito, Akihito and, effective May 1, Naruhito. (Courtesy Hawaii Hochi)
Three generations of emperors: Hirohito, Akihito and, effective May 1, Naruhito. (Courtesy Hawaii Hochi)

Thus, when Akihito was born in the closing days of 1933, the national government and the people of Japan breathed a collective sigh of relief and celebrated. Later, a second son, Hitachi, and another daughter, Takako, were born. Altogether, Akihito had six sisters and one brother (although his second-oldest sister died in infancy).

The public and news media showed much interest in the young prince, reporting every detail of his life, including when his first two baby teeth appeared. The country rejoiced when he was found to be in excellent health in mind and body at the age of 1. People gathered around their radio sets to hear how he was developing and what his life was like, even before the royal toddler could speak. According to news stories, he was showered with attention from all quarters, including from his older sisters, for the first few years of his life.

By the age of 3, Akihito was removed from the direct care of his parents and family and raised by tutors, chamberlains, governesses, retainers and others. His daily activities were closely monitored and guided by these individuals, although he did seem to enjoy his share of childhood indulgences, as well. In March 1939, the Honolulu Advertiser reported that 5-year-old Akihito was “chiefly occupied by a Mongol pony and dog which were given him for his most recent birthday, and a small bicycle which he peddles around his own private palace grounds.”

From 1940 to 1952, he attended The Peers School, known in Japan as Gakushuin, except for a period in 1945 when he and his brother were removed from the palace grounds during the firebombings of Tökyö. The school had been established to educate the children of the nobility. Akihito’s father and grandfather had also attended the Peers School.

At the end of World War II, Emperor Hirohito made a remarkable decision. He wanted Akihito to be educated by an American tutor. After a search was conducted with the help of Dr. George D. Stoddard, a distinguished American educator, Elizabeth Gray Vining was suggested as an ideal candidate. In her biography, “Windows for the Crown Prince,” she described herself as a “quiet Philadelphia Quaker.” She was a talented writer and a pacifist. She hesitated initially, feeling she might be inadequate for the position, but was eventually persuaded to accept.

In her book, Vining makes it clear that finding an American tutor for Akihito was not an idea imposed by the American Occupation forces in Japan. “Nothing could be further from the fact,” she wrote. “The idea proceeded from the Emperor [Hirohito] himself; he made the proposal on his own initiative without even consulting the people in charge of the Crown Prince’s education, and it was an unprecedented step for him to take. For a long time after my arrival in Japan I did not realize just how extraordinary it was for the Emperor, who traditionally accepted the decisions of the experts about his son without question and even without comment, to take on himself a decision of this kind.”

Hirohito reportedly said that if there was anything he had done that was a success, “it was asking Mrs. Vining to come here.”

Vining arrived in Japan in late 1946 and tutored Akihito for four years. When she arrived, Akihito was just weeks away from turning 13. From all accounts, they developed a close relationship over the years, even after Vining returned to the United States. She appeared to have had a profound effect on his development during those impressionable years and he seemed to have taken to her as one would to a trusted relative or adult confidante.

During Akihito’s 1953 visit to the U.S., he stayed at Vining’s home in Philadelphia for three days, touring the historic city, seeing Independence Hall, Betsy Ross House, Benjamin Franklin’s grave and other attractions. Akihito impressed his hosts with his knowledge of American history. One of them surmised that it was due to Vining’s efforts as his former tutor. In her books and news interviews, Vining spoke affectionately of Akihito as a child and as an adult she had watched mature. When Vining visited Japan, Hirohito and Akihito always treated her as an honored guest.

When Akihito turned 18, he was declared heir-apparent to the Chrysanthemum Throne of Japan in an elaborate joint investiture and coming of age ceremony invoking rituals dating back to the eighth century. It was reportedly Japan’s first state ceremony since regaining independence after six and half years of Allied Occupation. Japan had a new constitution, a new view of the emperor and the imperial family, and a new opportunity to build alliances with its former enemies and prove itself as a peace-seeking nation throughout the world.

As both crown prince and emperor, Akihito has played a significant role in this regard. In 1953, at the age of 19, he embarked on the first of many goodwill tours to countries outside of Japan. His gentle manners and friendly disposition endeared him to many he met in his travels. His 1953 trip took him to the United States, Canada and Europe over a period of six months, the centerpiece of which was to attend the coronation of Elizabeth II. Hawai‘i was his first and last stop on the trip: It was the first time he set foot on American soil.

If Akihito’s birth was cause for celebration, his marriage to Michiko Shoda aroused as much, if not more, enthusiasm from the Japanese people. Breaking with tradition, Akihito chose to marry a woman who was not from the ranks of Japan’s nobility. It was the first time a Japanese crown prince has married a so-called “commoner” in 2,600 years. Although much has been made of this fact, Michiko wasn’t exactly from the peasantry.

Born in October 1934, she was the daughter of Hidesaburo and Fumiko Shoda. She was the second of four children in a wealthy, cultured Japanese family that was prominent in industrial and academic circles. Her father was the president of the Nisshin Flour Milling Company. Michiko attended the University of the Sacred Heart (or Seishin, in Japanese), a prestigious all-women’s school.

As the story goes, she met Akihito on a tennis court in August 1957. They were formally engaged in January 1959 and were married on April 10, 1959, in a traditional Shintö ceremony. Vining, the crown prince’s former tutor, was invited to attend the ceremony, which she did. Interestingly, a photo in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin shows Michiko (prior to the wedding) on a stopover in Honolulu. She was carrying some of her own luggage, including a tennis racket under arm, as she was presented with a lei by a local resident.

Then-Gov. William Quinn presented the royal couple a wedding gift via the Japanese Consul General on April 3, 1959. The gift was an anthurium leaf-shaped monkey pod tray, salad bowl server and a dozen individual bowls. Woodcarver Tommy Leong of Kalihi made the set of wood items.

Champagne was served at the Japanese Consulate to toast Akihito’s and Michiko’s upcoming marriage. A group of community leaders in Hawai‘i decided to create a lasting legacy in honor of the marriage. With the permission of the Imperial Household Agency, they raised money to endow a scholarship and named it the Crown Prince Akihito Scholarship Foundation. Generous scholarships to American and Japanese students have allowed them to study in each other’s country until today and recipients have had the opportunity to meet the emperor and empress in person in a private audience each year.

Crown Prince Akihito and Crown Princess Michiko had three children: Naruhito (born Feb. 23, 1960), the current crown prince who will succeed his father as emperor upon his abdication; Prince Akishino (born Nov. 30, 1965), who attended last year’s Gannenmono 150th anniversary commemoration in Hawai‘i with his wife, Princess Kiko; and Princess Sayako (born April 18, 1969). Sayako, now Sayako Kuroda, is no longer considered a princess, as she married a commoner, Yoshiki Kuroda. Akihito and Michiko chose to raise their children themselves rather than have them removed from their direct care and raised and educated by tutors and chamberlains, as had been tradition.

As husband and wife, Crown Prince Akihito and Crown Princess Michiko traveled widely together within and outside of Japan as official representatives of their country. Although members of the imperial family hold no political power, they have a degree of social power wherever they go and have come to reflect the dual forces of tradition and modernization as they retain certain rituals and customs important to the Imperial Household and break with other traditions to bring the imperial family closer to the people.

Although Akihito and Michiko visited Hawai‘i numerous times, Emperor Hirohito and Empress Nagako visited Hawai‘i only once, in 1975. It was the first time a Japanese emperor had visited Hawai‘i. (One writer mused that it was a long time coming, as Hawai‘i’s King Kaläkaua had visited Japan in 1880 and was welcomed by Emperor Meiji, Hirohito’s grandfather. The writer suggested that Hirohito may have been returning the favor.) During the long break between Akihito’s and Michiko’s 1967 and 1994 visits to Hawai‘i, Emperor Hirohito had died on Jan. 7, 1989, following a long illness.

Akihito then became the 125th emperor of the Chrysanthemum Throne. His enthronement ceremony, held Nov. 12, 1990, was attended by dignitaries from 158 countries.

Akihito’s and Michiko’s final visit to Hawai‘i as emperor and empress was in 2009.

When not traveling abroad, Akihito and Michiko maintain a busy schedule in Japan. The Imperial Household Agency’s (Kunaicho, in Japanese) website describes some of their home turf duties:

“At the Imperial Palace, Their Majesties host hundreds of ceremonies, audiences, teas, lunches, and dinners all year around. On these occasions, they meet a large number of people from all walks of life, including government officials, local government leaders, businessmen, farmers and fishermen, social and welfare workers, scholars and artists. State Banquets for visiting Heads of State or lunches and audiences for other visiting dignitaries are also held at the Imperial Palace.”

The imperial couple has visited all 47 prefectures in Japan and attend special events to meet and encourage the people involved. “Especially concerned about welfare, they have visited more than 500 facilities for children, the elderly and the handicapped throughout the country,” according to Kunaicho.

They have also visited major disaster areas “to console the victims and give support to the rescue workers.” Photos of the Emperor and Empress kneeling close to victims of tragedy have been seen around the world. It is a gesture that would have been unthinkable in previous imperial eras prior to the end of World War II when Japan’s emperors were considered akin to deities.

On April 30, 2019, the nation of Japan will mark the end of an era, both literally and figuratively speaking. The Heisei Era of Akihito will end and the Reiwa Era of his son, Crown Prince Naruhito, and his wife Masako will begin. Akihito will be the first Japanese emperor to relinquish the throne in 200 years. He and Empress Michiko are extremely popular in Japan, largely due to their warm personalities and ability to connect on a personal level with people from all walks of life, both in Japan and abroad.

Akihito’s declining health and his advancing age contributed to his desire to retire from his current role. He has been treated for pancreatic cancer, heart problems and cerebral anemia, which caused dizziness and nausea and resulted in a curtailment of his public appearances and activities. In August 2016, Akihito made a rare public address to the nation and mentioned his concerns about his future health and ability to carry out his official duties. That speech led to a change in national law enacted by the Japanese parliament the following year allowing Akihito to retire.

Even this act, the request to step down from the demanding duties of his office, has reinforced both Emperor Akihito’s humanity and his mortality. Like his fellow Japanese citizens, he worries about his health and his functional capacity. For the most part, the Japanese people have responded with considerable compassion and gratitude to both Akihito and Michiko for their many decades of service and duty to their country.

This past December, on the occasion of his 85th birthday, he spoke with emotion to the Japanese public. He said he was relieved that the Heisei Era — his era — was coming to an end “free of war in Japan.” Tens of thousands of people gathered outside the Imperial Palace to wish him well. It was their last opportunity to do so with Akihito as emperor. He spoke about the importance of continuing to pursue peace and thanked his wife Michiko, the woman who has been by his side for most of his adult life as crown prince, emperor and soon-to-be retired emperor.


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