Empress Michiko: The Times and Trials of the Emperor’s Devoted Consort


Surprise and Pain at Headlines Shouting “Abdication”

On August 8, 2016, Emperor Akihito, then aged 82, delivered a statement in which, while using indirect language, he indicated his desire to abdicate. And in October, Empress Michiko, who had just turned 82 herself, prepared written answers to questions from the press, including this passage: “It came as a shock to me . . . to see the words seizen taii [literally, abdicate while living] printed in such big letters on the front pages of the papers. It could have been because until then I had never come across this expression even in history books that, along with surprise, I briefly experienced pain upon seeing those words. Perhaps I might have been a bit too sensitive.”(*1)

Both as crown princess during the reign of Emperor Shōwa (Hirohito) and as empress during the reign of the current emperor, Empress Michiko has been at her husband’s side, energetically performing her role in the ritual ceremonies of the imperial court and in carrying out her official duties both within Japan and overseas. Surely many different thoughts have passed through her heart over the years. Though she now enjoys the love and respect of the Japanese people as the empress, the path she traveled was not a smooth one. As someone who was born in the same year as the empress and who followed her for many years as a journalist, I would like to review some of the difficulties she has faced.

Responding to Critical Coverage

Empress Michiko turned 59 on October 20, 1993. At the time I was teaching at a university, and that morning I delivered a lecture on the topic of “Empress Michiko’s self-realization.” When I returned home shortly after 11 in the morning, there were close to 10 messages on my answering machine. The empress had collapsed, and the messages were all requests from media organs for my comments or for me to appear on news programs. I decided to give priority to the request to appear on a program produced by the news department at Nippon Television Network, my former workplace. I rushed there and waited till it was time for me to go on air.

Weekly magazines had recently been carrying articles with headlines declaring that the natural woods on the grounds of the Imperial Palace, which the emperor loved, had been razed at the empress’s request. The stories reported that the trees had been felled to make way for a new imperial residence. And it was these reports that came to my mind when I heard the news of the empress’s collapse.

Empress Michiko had taken the unusual step of rebutting this coverage in written answers to questions from the press:  “I believe that I must lend my ear to criticisms of every sort as a means of self-reflection. I request pardon if I have up to now failed to show adequate consideration or if my words have hurt people in any way. However, I feel great sadness and confusion at nonfactual reporting. Our society must not be one that does not allow criticism, but I do not want it to be a society that allows repeated criticisms not based on fact.”(*2)

Refraining from public expressions of approval or disapproval is part of the basic etiquette practiced by members of the imperial family. It was unprecedented for the empress to deliver a public reply to such media stories. I was moved by the positive posture she took in deciding to answer the question she received concerning articles criticizing the imperial family. Previously, female members of the imperial family would probably have chosen to ignore this question, but she delivered a statement in which she addressed the substance of the matter.

For Empress Michiko, who graduated from the Department of Foreign Languages and Literature at the University of the Sacred Heart in 1957 and is a member of the first generation to receive the democratic education of the postwar era, it was probably quite natural to express her own sentiments clearly in response to nonfactual content.

Why Did the Empress Lose Her Voice?

After her collapse, Empress Michiko lost her voice. She underwent a detailed brain examination at the Hospital of the Imperial Household, but the medical team treating her reported that they had found nothing abnormal; they explained that voice-loss symptoms may occur when a person has experienced some great sorrow.

Three days later, on October 23, the empress accompanied the emperor on a visit to Tokushima and Kagawa Prefectures for the autumn National Athletic Meet, and she performed her subsequent official duties without any break. Her voice, however, was slow to return. Her daughter, Princess Nori (Sayako), stayed with her constantly and supported her in her everyday life, And she received countless messages of encouragement and senbazuru, sets of a thousand origami cranes that people folded and strung for her.

On February 12 of the following year, in advance of the fiftieth anniversary of the end of World War II, the imperial couple visited Iwo Jima (Iōtō), the site of a fierce battle during the war. There they offered flowers at the memorial to the 30,000 Japanese and American soldiers who lost their lives, and prayed for the repose of their souls. The next day, on Chichijima, one of the Ogasawara Islands, the emperor and empress watched as children released sea turtles on the beach, and the empress remarked to one child, “The next wave will carry that turtle back to the ocean.” According to an announcement from the Imperial Household Agency, this marked the start of the gradual return of her voice.

Why did the empress lose her voice? If I may offer my own view as a person who is the same age as the empress and who worked for many years as the producer of special programs about the imperial family, I would suggest the problem was caused not by psychological factors but by excessive fatigue.

The empress, born in 1934, was surely suffering from a level of fatigue, tension, and stress defying description. Just in the two months prior to her collapse she traveled to Europe twice, first for the funeral of Belgium’s King Baudouin and then on a three-country tour of Italy, Belgium, and Germany.

The imperial couple’s official duties include occasions where they are surrounded by tens of thousands of people, and there are times when they become the target of opponents of the monarchy and unexpected incidents occur. On April 10, 1959, their wedding day, a young man threw a stone at them. And they had a firebomb thrown at them while they were visiting Okinawa for Expo ’75. Then there was the smoke bomb incident at the National Athletic Meet in Yamagata in the autumn of 1992, the year before the empress’s collapse. A man suddenly ran out on to the stadium track, screamed, “Stop the emperor’s trip to China!” and hurled a smoke bomb at the royal box as Emperor Akihito was delivering his message to the gathering. The emperor maintained his composure and continued to speak, but the empress’s reaction drew wide public attention: When the smoke bomb was thrown, she immediately moved her arm in front of the emperor to protect him. This was very impressive, and it made me realize how difficult it must be for her, being under constant physical and mental strain.

The Trials of Japan’s First Commoner Crown Princess

As the first commoner ever to become crown princess in Japan, the future Empress Michiko surely faced a constant stream of difficulties from the time of her marriage to then Crown Prince Akihito. Entries from the diary of Irie Sukemasa, who served for half a century as a chamberlain to Emperor Shōwa (Hirohito), reveal that Empress Kōjun (Nagako) was unhappy from the start about the match between the heir to the throne and this woman named Shōda Michiko.

The two were married in April 1959, but in his diary entry for October 11 of the previous year Irie writes, “It is said that the Empress summoned Lady Setsuko, [Princess Chichibu] and Lady Kikuko [Princess Takamatsu] to talk about the Crown Prince’s prospective consort, saying that marrying a commoner would be shameful.”

Even almost a decade later, Crown Princess Michiko was apparently still having a hard time in her relationship with her mother-in-law Empress Kōjun. In his diary entry for November 13, 1967, Irie reports that the crown princess revealed her sentiments to him as follows: “Audience with the Crown Princess for over two hours, from 3:30 to 5:40. . . . She concluded by asking me what on earth the Empress thought of her, what, aside from her birth as a commoner, the Empress disliked about her, etc. I answered the questions and withdrew.”

Cooperating as a Couple to Change Old Ways

Though she encountered much resistance on the way, Crown Princess Michiko, with help from Crown Prince Akihito, undertook various reforms of court tradition, such as doing away with the wet-nurse system, having the children live with their parents, and sending them to school for their education. And since becoming empress, as I noted above, she has faithfully performed her official duties in close cooperation with the emperor, energetically traveling both within Japan and abroad.

It is said that we are to have a new emperor and empress on January 1, 2019. Given the state of Crown Princess Masako’s health, she may at times find it difficult to carry out her official duties as empress. But Empress Michiko, with the emperor’s cooperation and support, managed to overcome difficulties and change the customs of the imperial family. I hope that the next empress will similarly work in close cooperation with the next emperor to create a new era in the annals of the imperial family.

(Originally published in Japanese on March 7, 2017. Banner photo: Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko stroll along the waterfront near Hayama Imperial Villa in Kanagawa Prefecture on January 31, 2017. © Jiji.)

(*1) ^ Provisional translation from the website of the Imperial Household Agency (http://www.kunaicho.go.jp/page/kaiken/showEn/3).

(*2) ^ Translated from Japanese original on the website of the Imperial Household Agency (http://www.kunaicho.go.jp/okotoba/01/kaiken/gokaito-h05sk.html).

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