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

Yamashita Shinji [Profile]


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.

  • [2018.05.17]

Imperial household journalist. Formerly with the Imperial Household Agency, where he was media liaison from 1988 to 1995. Born in Osaka in 1956. Graduated from Kansai University. After leaving the IHA in 2001, he was a director at a publishing company before going freelance in 2004. Active as a television analyst and a writer. Works include Ima shitte okitai tennō to kōshitsu (Understanding the Emperor and Imperial Family Today).

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