Crown Prince Naruhito: A Profile of Japan’s Next Emperor


In less than a year, on May 1, 2019, Crown Prince Naruhito is set to ascend the Chrysanthemum Throne. Former Imperial Household Agency employee Yamashita Shinji gives a profile of Japan’s next emperor.

A New Emperor

On May 1, 2019, Crown Prince Naruhito will become Japan’s 126th emperor, according to the country’s traditional genealogy. At 59, he will be a little older than his father Akihito was when he ascended to the imperial throne at 55, but one might expect Naruhito’s reign to also last some three decades or so.

At a press conference on February 21, 2018, the crown prince spoke of his desire to maintain traditions in the manner of his parents, Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko. “I have etched in my mind their majesties’ attitudes and mental preparedness toward their official duties. I will strive to improve myself as I perform in the role.”

It is no exaggeration to say that the imperial family is in a state of crisis. Under the Imperial House Law, which does not allow for female succession, Naruhito’s 11-year-old nephew Prince Hisahito of Akishino is the only eligible claimant to the throne in the next generation. What is more, the family’s seven unmarried princesses will relinquish their imperial status if they wed, reducing the number of members able to complete official duties.

After Naruhito’s succession next year, the government will consider how to deal with these issues. As the emperor himself does not have any state power under the Constitution, he is not allowed to even express his opinions on any legal changes. At the same time, the public will be greatly interested in what he thinks, and the government cannot ignore this. No doubt, it will be necessary to sound out the emperor’s views in private. Crown Prince Naruhito will likely face great pressure in meeting the imperial family’s thorny challenges, while bearing the weight of its lengthy history.

The Importance of Family

Naruhito was born on February 23, 1960, as the first son of Akihito, who was then crown prince. Until he was 28, his grandfather Hirohito (Emperor Shōwa) occupied the throne. This made Naruhito’s early life very different from that of his father, who was crown prince from the time of his birth. When Akihito reached his majority at the age of 18—two years earlier than ordinary Japanese citizens, based on the Imperial House Law—he was immediately busy with his duties as crown prince or acting as a representative for Emperor Shōwa. This meant that he was unable to attend Gakushūin University, the higher education institution chosen by most imperial family members, in the same way as typical students. Although he enrolled, he only went to lectures when time allowed.

Crown Prince Naruhito, however, graduated from Gakushūin University and continued to its Graduate School of Humanities, where—after spending two years studying in Britain—he completed the first part of a doctoral program. His research topic was water transport. As an elementary school student, he learned that in the Kamakura period (1185–1333), a road had passed through the grounds of the Akasaka imperial estate 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, while at Oxford University he researched the history of transportation on the River Thames. He later broadened his research to encompass humanity’s relationship with water in general, from drinking water to pollution. As grandson of the emperor, rather than crown prince, he had the leeway to set his own study priorities.

Chronology of Crown Prince Naruhito

February 23, 1960 0 Born the first son of Crown Prince Akihito and Crown Princess Michiko.
April 1978 18 Enrolls at Gakushūin University, where he plays the viola in the university orchestra. He later performs for the alumni orchestra.
February 23, 1980 20 Comes of age.
March 1982 22 Graduates from Gakushūin University.
April 1982 22 Begins postgraduate study at Gakushūin University, specializing in medieval transport and distribution.
June 1983 23 Goes to Britain to begin study at Merton College, Oxford University, researching water transport on the River Thames in the eighteenth century.
October 1985 25 Returns to Japan.
March 1988 28 Completes the first part of a doctorate at the Graduate School of Humanities, Gakushūin University.
January 7, 1989 28 Becomes crown prince on the death of Emperor Shōwa.
February 23, 1991 31 Formally invested as crown prince.
April 1992 32 Becomes guest researcher in the archives of Gakushūin University.
June 9, 1993 33 Marries Owada Masako.
December 1, 2001 41 Birth of daughter Princess Aiko.
June 2002 42 Becomes honorary president of Expo 2005, held in Aichi Prefecture.
November 2007 47 Appointed as honorary president of the United Nations Secretary-General’s Advisory Board on Water and Sanitation.

Naruhito lived with his parents and his younger brother Fumihito (Prince Akishino) until the age of 30. Emperors Akihito, Shōwa, and Taishō (his great-grandfather) were all taken from their parents at a young age and raised by subjects, reflecting the emphasis on the public realm over private matters for the rulers of the time. Rather than love towards one’s parents, it was thought more important to show consideration for the people of the state. When Naruhito was born in 1960, this way of thinking could still be found, and the future Emperor Akihito came under criticism for living together with his children as in an ordinary household. However, Emperor Shōwa thought that a family should live together, and public opinion had changed over the years, so this was how matters turned out. I imagine the present imperial couple felt considerable pressure in raising a future emperor.

In 1984, when he was still crown prince, Akihito stated 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 whom I may never have the chance to meet.” The Japanese public embraced his message, which appeared to many as perfectly natural.

Naruhito now lives in a family of three. He met his wife, Masako, in 1986 and they married in 1993. Unfortunately, the crown princess has suffered from a stress-induced adjustment disorder since late 2003, but one must not forget the vow Naruhito made when he proposed: that he will protect her throughout his lifetime with all his strength. Princess Aiko, their daughter, was born in the ninth year of their marriage. While she grew up, Naruhito read picture books to her, played with her, and sometimes even took her to school. At the same time as fulfilling his duties, he took an active part in raising his daughter while Masako was undergoing treatment. Some blasted him for spending too much time on his private life, but his father’s belief in the importance of family has apparently been handed down.

Respect and Courtesy to All

At the press conference in February this year, Naruhito was asked when he had first become clearly aware of his own position. He responded, “While observing my parents, I gradually realized that because of my birth I would one day become the emperor.” Living surrounded by Imperial Household Agency employees and police officers assigned to the Imperial Palace made Naruhito’s life very different from that in an ordinary family. He must have come to a natural understanding of his future role.

Imperial family members in the direct line of succession have less room for the private realm than those in branch houses. When imperial family members go on school trips, local mayors ask to welcome them. Some refuse on the grounds of privacy, but Naruhito would accept these invitations, as long as they did not inconvenience other students. He well understood the local leaders’ desire to exchange greetings with him.

His friends and attendants say that since he was very young, Naruhito was always considerate of those around him. Even among the IHA staff, apart from senior officials and personal attendants, there are few people who speak with the emperor, empress, and other members of the imperial family on a regular basis. I regret that I have never attended on them, so I have not had the chance to see their daily life. However, in my many years of liaising with the media at the IHA, I did accompany family members on overseas trips.

In 1991, I went with the crown prince on official visits to Morocco and Britain. Including myself, there were five IHA employees, and I was the only one of us not directly assigned to his official residence, the Tōgū Palace in Akasaka. When the two-week tour was over, we returned to the palace at night. I was paying my greetings at the main office before returning home when his highness happened to enter the room. I think I showed gratitude in some way, to which he responded, “Yamashita-san, thank you for your efforts. Would you take a drink?”

The two of us sat in the office talking about the visits. I think he spoke to me because I was not assigned to Tōgū Palace and he probably would not meet me again for some time. I was grateful for his concern for me, a relatively low-ranking employee, when he must have been tired from jet lag and his many duties during the trip. This is just one example, but I have heard from his attendants that he always shows respect and courtesy toward others, whether they be the prime minister of the nation or ordinary members of the public.

Imperial Interests

The imperial family transforms with the times. It is difficult, however, to decide what needs to change, and the emperor’s own thoughts are important. Naturally, the emperor’s public duties should also change. Crown Prince Naruhito has said: “It is for the Imperial Family to accurately gauge what is required of the Imperial Family in a certain era and the content of official duties in step with the era.”

Naruhito is currently focusing his efforts on water, an area said to be of the highest importance for humanity. As honorary president of the United Nations Secretary-General’s Advisory Board on Water and Sanitation, a post in which he served through 2015, he gave speeches and participated in activities in Japan and overseas. He also discussed issues including welfare for children and the elderly in Japan’s aging society, child education, and promoting cultural exchange and friendly relations at the international level in his 2005 birthday press conference. I look forward to seeing what he does and how he presents himself to the public when he becomes emperor.

Apart from his public duties and research, I hope Naruhito will be able to enjoy his wide range of other interests—such as tennis, mountain climbing, jogging, and playing the viola—and to connect with citizens by doing so.

I believe that Crown Prince Naruhito’s kind personality will help him win the trust and respect of people in Japan and around the world.

(Originally published in Japanese on April 30, 2018. Banner photo: Crown Prince Naruhito gives the keynote speech on the subject of water and disaster at the World Water Forum in Brasilia, Brazil, on March 19, 2018. © Jiji.)

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