Meet the New Imperial Family

Society Imperial Family

The new emperor’s family includes his spouse, Empress Masako, and their daughter, Princess Aiko. The three are pictured here on the grounds of their residence, the Akasaka Palace, also known as the Tōgū Palace.

Emperor Naruhito

Emperor Naruhito, born in 1960, is 59 years old. Before becoming crown prince, he was known by the title of Prince Hiro. His personal emblem is the azusa, or catalpa tree. 

Naruhito was formally invested as crown prince in 1991 at the age of 31, when his father Akihito became emperor. He has served as a guest researcher in the Museum of History of Gakushūin University since 1992.

Naruhito, the new emperor (left), and Emperor Emeritus Akihito wave to well-wishers offering New Year greetings at the Imperial Palace on January 2, 2019. (© Jiji)
Naruhito, the new emperor (left), and Emperor Emeritus Akihito wave to well-wishers offering New Year greetings at the Imperial Palace on January 2, 2019. (© Jiji)

The new emperor is known for his love of mountain climbing and has engaged in the leisure pursuit for five decades. He is a member of the Japanese Alpine Club and has contributed articles to its members’ magazine and exhibited his photos of mountains at club-sponsored shows. He also enjoys music and played the viola with the Gakushūin University orchestra in his student days. He continues to play the instrument even today at regular performances of the Gakushūin alumni orchestra.

Naruhito has a reputation for slightly unconventional behavior, at least by imperial family standards, including sometimes carrying a camera with him during official duties. However, he is known for being open and approachable when traveling abroad. During a visit to Denmark in 2017, he obligingly posed for a photo with a member of the public who greeted him, flustering his handlers in the Imperial Household Agency.

The firstborn child of Emperor Emeritus Akihito and Empress Emerita Michiko, Naruhito was brought up differently than previous generations of the imperial family. When Michiko became pregnant, she applied for and received a Mother-Child Health Handbook commonly distributed to mothers-to-be for recording information like the mother’s health during pregnancy and the baby’s vital statistics and vaccinations. After Naruhito’s birth at the Imperial Household Agency hospital, Akihito and Michiko declined to follow the custom of leaving their son in the care of nurses and nannies, and instead elected to live together as a family.

When Naruhito was a mere seven months old, Michiko accompanied the emperor on a two-week visit to the United States. Many people remember the notes that Michiko left for Naruhito’s caregivers, including the request to “give Naruhito a good hug at least once a day.”

At the age of six, Naruhito began attending Gakushūin, the school where most members of the imperial family have studied. After completing elementary, lower secondary, and upper secondary studies at the school, he enrolled at Gakushūin University. Proceeding to postgraduate studies, he completed the first part of a doctorate at the university’s Graduate School of Humanities in 1988. While many members of the imperial family have been partial to natural science research, Naruhito opted for the humanities, focusing on the history of medieval transport and distribution. He pursued further studies at Merton College, Oxford University, from 1983 to 1985, researching the history of water transport on the River Thames. He later broadened his interest to the subject of water and has made research in this field a lifelong pursuit.

Once Naruhito reached adulthood, public interest focused on who he would marry. He likened his quest for a mate to climbing Mount Fuji, and when asked at a press conference how he was progressing, he smilingly suggested that he had reached “about the seventh station,” two-thirds of the way up.

After a seven-year courtship, in 1993 Naruhito married Masako Owada, a former diplomat he had met during a reception for Princess Elena of Spain at the Tōgū Palace in 1986.

Empress Masako

Empress Masako, age 55, was born in 1963 as the first child of diplomat Owada Hisashi. Her personal emblem is the hamanasu, or beach rose. A graduate of Harvard, the empress is a former diplomat who speaks English, German, and French. 

In her teens, she was an avid softball player. After her marriage to the emperor, she has joined him mountain climbing and skiing.

Emperor Naruhito and Empress Masako, at the Imperial Palace’s Hanzōmon gate on January 2, 2019. (© Jiji)
Emperor Naruhito and Empress Masako, at the Imperial Palace’s Hanzōmon gate on January 2, 2019. (© Jiji)

The new empress was born in Japan but spent much of her early childhood abroad, in conjunction with her diplomat father’s postings. At age one, she lived in Moscow and moved to Geneva the next year when she was two. From the age of four, she lived in New York. Returning to Japan at age seven, she was enrolled at private school Denenchōfu Futaba Gakuen, which she attended until high school. In 1979, she returned once more to live in the United States when her father was appointed consul at the Japanese embassy there. Transferring to a public high school in Massachusetts, she later attended Harvard University, graduating in 1985 with a degree in mathematical economics.

After graduation, and once again living in Japan, Masako took classes at the University of Tokyo’s faculty of law. She began working at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1987, and while at the ministry did postgraduate study at Oxford University’s Balliol College from 1988 to 1990. She left the ministry upon her engagement to Naruhito in 1993.

In 2001, Masako gave birth to the couple’s daughter, Princess Aiko. Masako was diagnosed with shingles in 2003, just before she turned 40, and gradually began absenting herself from public duties. It was later reported that she was suffering from a stress-related adjustment disorder.

Although according to palace physicians Masako is still unwell at times, in recent years she has begun appearing at more public functions. In 2013, she traveled to the Netherlands to attend the investiture of Willem-Alexander as king of the Netherlands and attended a formal banquet the following year when the king and his spouse visited Japan. It was the first time in 11 years that Masako had attended such functions.

In 2018, for the first time in 15 years, Masako attended the annual meeting of the Japanese Red Cross Society. The same year, she also attended the autumn imperial garden party, staying for the entire event instead of only making a brief appearance as in previous years. Empresses have traditionally cultivated silkworms, and it is expected that Masako will do the same. In December 2018, in written remarks on the occasion at her last birthday as crown princess, Masako said that she would continue to apply herself and fulfill her duties to the best of her abilities.

Princess Aiko

Princess Aiko, daughter of Emperor Naruhito and Empress Masako, at the Imperial Palace’s Hanzōmon gate on August 11, 2018. (© Jiji)
Princess Aiko, daughter of Emperor Naruhito and Empress Masako, at the Imperial Palace’s Hanzōmon gate on August 11, 2018. (© Jiji)

Born in 2001, Princess Aiko is now 17. The only child of the imperial couple, her title is Princess Toshi and her personal emblem is the goyō tsutsuji, or cork azalea. She is currently in her third year of upper secondary school at Gakushūin Girls’ Secondary School.

Princess Aiko has attended Gakushūin since elementary school. In 2018, as a second-year upper secondary school student, she traveled to Britain for summer school.

(Originally written in Japanese by Masuda Miki. Banner photo: Then Crown Prince Naruhito and his family with their dog Yuri after a walk during a holiday at the Nasu imperial retreat in Nasu, Tochigi Prefecture, on August 25, 2018. © Jiji.)

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