Naruhito: Emperor of a modern Japan

Naruhito: Emperor of a modern Japan
Emperor Naruhito officially proclaims his ascension to the Chrysanthemum Throne during an enthronement ceremony at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo on October 22, 2019. (AFP)
Updated 22 October 2019

Naruhito: Emperor of a modern Japan

Naruhito: Emperor of a modern Japan
  • Enthronement ceremony in Tokyo attended by delegates from nearly 200 countries
  • Naruhito belongs to a family believed to be the world's oldest continuous monarchy

DUBAI: Marked by elaborate ceremonies and attended by delegations from nearly 200 countries and organizations, the enthronement of Japanese Emperor Naruhito took place on Oct. 22. He ascended to the imperial throne on May 1, becoming Japan’s 126th emperor, according to the country’s traditional genealogy.

At 59, Naruhito is a little older than his father Akihito was when he ascended to the Chrysanthemum Throne at 55, but Naruhito’s reign is also expected to be a long and harmonious one.

He can claim a number of firsts as a member of the Japanese monarchy. No emperor in the past had the experience of studying abroad, and he is also the first emperor not to be separated from his family and brought up largely by nannies.

Naruhito has signaled his intent to adapt to “the changing times,” while also saying his years with his parents would serve as “major guideposts” for him as he performs his nonpolitical duties as the symbol of the state.

“I would like to pursue my duties as the symbol (of the state) by always being beside Japanese citizens, and sharing joy and sorrow with the people,” Naruhito said as crown prince in February.

He was born on Feb. 23, 1960, as the first son of Akihito, who was then Japan’s crown prince, and his wife, Michiko, one year after their marriage. Michiko, formerly known as Michiko Shoda, was the first crown princess of commoner origin.

The emperor’s name, given by his grandfather Emperor Hirohito — posthumously known as Emperor Showa — consists of two Chinese characters taken from an ancient Confucian philosophy book and means “a man who acquires heavenly virtues.”

Unlike his father — who grew up away from his parents in line with imperial family custom — Naruhito, his younger brother Crown Prince Fumihito and younger sister Sayako Kuroda were all directly cared for by their parents.

In 1984, Akihito said at a press conference: “I believe that properly understanding the everyday feelings of a family is a way of appreciating and understanding the feelings of citizens who I may never have the chance to meet.”

The Japanese public embraced his message, which many considered perfectly natural.

Naruhito entered the kindergarten of Gakushuin University in 1964 and attended the elementary, junior high and high schools of the university, which was established in the 19th century as a school for aristocrats.

In 1978, Naruhito enrolled in the university’s Faculty of Letters, where he majored in history. Before his graduation in 1982, he wrote a diploma thesis on medieval water transport in the Inland Sea area of western Japan.

After advancing to the graduate school of the private Japanese university in April 1982, he studied for two years from 1983 at the University of Oxford’s Merton College, where he lived in a dormitory for the first time.

During his stay, he said, he visited the local pubs, flooded a washing machine by putting in too many clothes and bought posters of American actresses Jane Fonda and Brooke Shields to decorate his room.

As an elementary school student, Naruhito had learned that in the Kamakura period (1185–1333), a road had passed through the grounds of the Akasaka Imperial Residence where he lived.

This sparked an early interest in transport, and he came to focus on water routes. His university graduation thesis was on medieval maritime traffic in the Seto Inland Sea.

Naruhito’s research theme in Oxford was the history of transportation on the River Thames. He published a paper titled “The Thames as a Highway” in 1989 and was awarded the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws by Oxford in 1991.

Naruhito later broadened his research to encompass humanity’s relationship with water in general, from drinking to pollution.

This expertise led to him serving as honorary president of the UN Secretary-General’s Advisory Board on Water and Sanitation between 2007 and 2015.

In January 1989, Naruhito became crown prince at the age of 28 after Akihito ascended to the Chrysanthemum Throne following Emperor Hirohito’s death.

Having set himself the goal of finding a partner before turning 30, he got married to Masako Owada, a career diplomat who spent her childhood in Moscow and New York, at the age of 33 in June 1993.

The couple first met in October 1986 at a party to welcome visiting Spanish Princess Elena. Following Owada’s return from the University of Oxford, where she studied between 1988 and 1990, the two met again in 1992 and he proposed marriage later that year.

“I will protect you with all my might for my entire life,” Naruhito, then crown prince, said in his proposal.

Their wedding took place the following year, and the couple’s only child, Princess Aiko, 17, was born on Dec. 1, 2001.

Naruhito is known to have a number of hobbies, including mountain climbing, jogging, playing tennis and skiing. He plays viola and belonged to an orchestra during his time at Gakushuin University.

Naruhito joined a variety of events and rituals in and outside the Imperial Palace, sometimes on behalf of the emperor in recent years.

At a Gakushuin reunion in January 2018, Naruhito reportedly told friends who were chatting about reaching the retirement age of 60 in the near future: “In my case, I will be getting started.”