Akihito (明仁, born December 23, 1933 at the Imperial Palace, or Kōkyo, in Tokyo, Japan) is Emperor of Japan from the death of his father, Hirohito, on January 7, 1989, until his abdication on April 30, 2019.
He was officially enthroned on November 12, 1990. The Japanese Constitution of 1947 limits his role to that of "symbol of the state and the unity of the Japanese people".
Before his accession to the Chrysanthemum Throne, which marks the end of the Shōwa Era and the beginning of the Heisei Era, he was Crown Prince for 37 years from 1952 to 1989.
He is the fifth child, eldest son and successor of Emperor Shōwa, known as Hirohito, and Empress Kōjun, known as Nagako. Through his mother, he is also the cousin of the Korean princess Yi Bangja.
According to official Shinto tradition, he is the 125th emperor of Japan, descended from the Yamato lineage, which is said to have ruled Japan since 660 BC, making it the oldest reigning dynasty in existence.
However, historians generally agree that the first fifteen emperors of this lineage are legendary.
Emperor Akihito abdicated on April 30, 2019, a decision he had announced several months earlier.
From that date on, he will take the title of emperor emeritus. Before him, 62 Japanese rulers have held this title after their abdication.
The former emperor of Japan is generally known in the Western media by his personal name, or given name, Akihito, received from his parents as per tradition seven days after his birth (i.e., December 29, 1933).
This first name is then composed of the kanji "明 (Aki)", which can mean "clear, bright " and "仁 (Hito)", referring to the notions of "virtue, benevolence, humanity, piety "
and serving as a traditional suffix in practically all the first names of the male children of the imperial family since the tenth century because it symbolizes the link between man and heaven.
The young Akihito received an honorary name along with his first name: he was then the prince of Tsugu (継宮, Tsugu-no-miya). In addition to the kanji "宮 (Miya)", which means "princely house, Shinto temple " and which, in its no-miya form (literally "of the house"),
is often translated simply by the aristocratic particle "of", that of 継 (Tsugu) refers to the notions of "following, succeeding, inheriting, continuing, pursuing, maintaining ".
His title can thus be literally translated as "prince of continuity" and refers to the fact that the birth of a male heir, when his father had already been emperor for seven years, was particularly expected.
From his birth in 1933 to his enthronement as crown prince in 1952, his full titulation was then "His Imperial Highness the Imperial Prince Akihito of Tsugu" (継宮 明仁 親王 殿下, Tsugu-no-miya Akihito shinnō denka)
From his official enthronement as crown prince in 1952 until his accession to the throne in 1989, he abandoned the title of Prince Tsugu and was henceforth referred to in Japan as "His Imperial Highness Crown Prince Akihito" (明仁 皇太子 殿下, Akihito Kōtaishi denka), the kanji 皇太子 (Kōtaishi), literally the "First Son of the Emperor," denoting the title of heir to the Chrysanthemum Throne.
Since he succeeded his father as Emperor of Japan, he is never referred to by the Japanese as Akihito, but during his reign as "His Majesty the Emperor" (天皇 陛下, Tennō Heika) or as "His Majesty present" (今上 陛下, Kinjō Heika).
As has been the tradition since the reign of the Meiji emperor, his accession to the throne corresponded to the proclamation of a new era serving
as the official basis for Japanese computation (although the Christian Western computation is now widely used, official documents still date most events in years of the current imperial era):
this era took the name of Heisei (平成), generally translated as "Fulfillment of Peace".
Following his abdication, this era ended in favor of the era corresponding to the reign of his son, named Reiwa (令和). From then on, he is known by the titulation of "His Majesty the Honorary Emperor" (上皇 陛下, Jōkō Heika).
After his death, the current emperor of Japan will finally take the posthumous name of Emperor Heisei (平成 天皇, Heisei Tennō).
While in the West the practice of naming the emperor by his simple first name, Akihito, has become widespread, following the example of European monarchs, this practice is considered in Japan to be a lack of respect to the emperor.
First son and fifth child of Emperor Hirohito and Empress Nagako, his birth, on December 23, 1933, was particularly expected.
Indeed, the imperial couple had already been married for 9 years and had only had daughters until then, who could not claim the succession of their father. The arrival of the long-awaited heir reassured the Japanese authorities, who were concerned about the stability of the Chrysanthemum throne.
As is the tradition for the children of the imperial couple, he was separated from his parents at the age of 3 and was educated by the chamberlains of the imperial palace and private tutors, seeing his parents only once a week in relatively solemn meetings.
Later, from 1940 to 1952, he attended the Gakushūin School, then reserved for children of the Japanese high aristocracy, in Tokyo. For the first few years of his schooling, he was isolated from his classmates who were kept at a distance.
In a context of state shintoism, he was educated to become the future "living god" that the emperor of Japan was for the Japanese opinion still at the time, namely an individual distant, isolated from the people and without defect.
The festivities for his tenth birthday in 1943 took on the aspect of a true national jubilee.
At the end of World War II, due to the intensification of air raids on the Japanese capital in late 1944 and 1945, he was evacuated from the city along with his younger brother Prince Yoshi Masahito (who now bore the title of Prince Hitachi), to be taken to the safety of the Imperial Villa of Tamozawa located in Nikkō inland.
There he learned of Japan's surrender and then wrote in his diary, "I will have to work harder at my apprenticeship. "
During the American occupation that followed World War II, Prince Akihito and his siblings resumed classes at Gakushūin but with the opportunity to mingle with their peers.
Thus, he is certainly the first Japanese emperor to have real personal friends. In addition, they were tutored from 1946 to 1950 by the Quaker Elizabeth Gray Vining, who introduced them to the English language and Western culture.
Although she was only in charge of their education for a relatively short time, she left a strong impression on the imperial children,
especially on the young Prince Tsugu, who maintained a special relationship with her until his death in 1999 (visiting her several times or keeping up an active correspondence with her, while she was the only foreigner invited to his wedding in 1959).
In her best-selling book Windows for the Crown Prince, published in 1952, Elizabeth Gray Vining recounts how she took a liking to the young prince and describes his transformation, under her guidance, from a rigid and withdrawn child into a teenager open to the world and won over to Western liberal ideas.
After her departure in 1950, she was replaced as the imperial children's English teacher by another Quaker, Esther Rhoads, principal of the Society of Friends School for Girls in Tokyo.
As for his political training and that of the future emperor, it was essentially supervised from 1949 onwards by Dr Shinzō Koizumi, an economist12 who was president of Keiō University from 1933 to 1947.
He was also a fervent liberal - both in the political and economic sense, being an ardent critic of Karl Marx's theses and a student of both the classical school, notably David Ricardo, and the neo-classical school.
He too was a fervent liberal - both in the political and economic sense of the term, being an ardent critic of Karl Marx's theses and a student of both the classical school, notably David Ricardo, and the neoclassical school, especially William Stanley Jevons -
and an admirer of the British parliamentary monarchy, citing King George V of the United Kingdom as an example for his young student to follow. Wanting to make Akihito the symbol of the modernization of the imperial family and more generally of Japanese society, he was one of the main architects of his marriage to a non-aristocrat, Michiko Shōda, who also seemed to be a real choice of love.
At the request of the prince, he was behind the young woman's inclusion on the list of suitors for marriage in February 1958 and declared: "The crown prince chose her, and so did we. He remained her principal advisor until her death in 1966.
His other preceptors included the jurist Kōtarō Tanaka, minister of education from 1946 to 1947 and president of the Supreme Court from 1950 to 1960, who introduced him to constitutional law from 1951 to 1960,
and the priest Stephen Fumio Hamao, then a student chaplain at the Catholic University of Tokyo since 1957 and later cardinal-archbishop of Yokohama, who taught him Latin. He also received active physical preparation, which he did not receive until his death in 1966.
He also received active physical training, and particularly enjoyed horseback riding and tennis.
In 1989, he supported the chief Raoni in his fight for the preservation of the Amazonian forest.
He was enthroned crown prince, at the Imperial Palace (Kōkyo) on November 10, 1952 in the traditional ceremony called Rittaishi no Reil.
Allowed to found his own princely house, traditionally called "Tōgū ", he moved from the Imperial Palace to his own residence, the Tōgū Palace, located in the Akasaka Imperial Estate (which includes many residences of members of the imperial family) in the Minato Special Ward of Tokyo.
Until the previous year, it was the Ōmiya Palace (大宮御所, Ōmiya-gosho), the residence of his grandmother the Dowager Empress Teimei until her death.
Minoru Hamao, brother of priest and future cardinal Stephen Fumio Hamao, became his chamberlain from 1961 and remained so until 1971.
Some observers see in this the importance of Catholic influence in the prince's entourage, especially since Elizabeth Gray Vining and Shinzō Koizumi, two of his main preceptors, were both also Christians.
However, Akihito seems to have never considered a conversion, and always performed traditional Shinto and Buddhist ceremonies and rituals. He did not have any influence on the religious life of his family.
Thus, having no religious influence, these collaborators contributed greatly to his becoming the main asset of the modernization and desacralization of the image of the imperial family sought by the government and the American occupiers.
This is evidenced by his numerous trips abroad, while his parents only left Japan twice during their reign (in 1971 in Europe and in 1975 in the United States).
In June 1953, Prince Akihito represented Japan at the coronation of Elizabeth II, Queen of the United Kingdom, and then travelled to France, Spain , the United States (notably Hawaii , and Philadelphia where he visited his former tutor Elizabeth Gray Vining) and Canada.
Entering the political science department of Gakushūin University in April 1952, his official obligations caused him to drop out without graduating in April 1954, but he continued to attend classes as an auditor until 1956.
There he began to realize his childhood passion for fish by starting to study ichthyology under the guidance of Professor Ichirō Tomiyama of Tokyo University.
In August 1957, he met Michiko Shōda (born October 24, 1934), the eldest daughter of Hidesaburo Shōda, president of the Nisshin Company, on a tennis court in the tourist resort of Karuizawa, near Nagano, during a doubles match.
The Imperial Household Council officially announced their engagement on November 27, 1958. The media spoke of the "tennis court romance" at the time and presented their meeting as a true "fairy tale. "
However, this marriage was not unanimously approved. During the 1950s, the media suggested that some traditionalist members of the Imperial Agency were trying to keep the young girl away from the Crown Prince.
Indeed, it had been traditional for the future emperor to marry an aristocrat, yet Michiko Shōda, from one of Japan's wealthiest industrial families, was the first commoner to be engaged to a member of the imperial family.
Moreover, she came from a Catholic background with liberal ideas and, although never baptized, was raised in Christian religious institutions.
In 2000, upon the death of Empress Kōjun, Reuters reported that the former empress was among the strongest opponents of the marriage and that in the 1960s she had driven her daughter-in-law to depression by accusing her of not being right for her son.
Death threats prompted the authorities to organize security for the Shōda family. In an effort to provide a more intimate and less staid image of the imperial family as had previously been the case, the couple posed for the public playing tennis or the princess preparing a meal.
The writer Yukio Mishima, known for his traditionalist stance, said: "The imperial system is becoming 'tabloid-like' in an effort to democratize the system. The idea of connecting (the imperial family) to the people through a loss of dignity is wrong.
However, the young couple had by then gained widespread support from the public, who saw them as a symbol of Japan's modernization and democratization (the media spoke of a "Micchi boom" at the time, picking up on Michiko Shōda's nickname), as well as that of the political class running the country.
Akihito's collaborators, and in particular Shinzō Koizumi, put all their weight behind the union. The wedding finally took place on April 10, 1959, in a traditional Shinto ceremony.
The wedding procession was followed through the streets of Tokyo by a crowd of more than 500,000 people along the 8.8 km route, and the parts of the wedding that were televised (making this the first princely wedding in Japan to be covered by the media) were watched by about 15 million people.
The wedding ceremony was a great success.
He again broke with imperial tradition when he and his wife decided to raise their children personally and thus keep them with them instead of entrusting them to private tutors and palace chamberlains.
The couple is presented as leading a very modern, westernized lifestyle, having friends over for dinner, while Akihito himself, according to his relatives, is involved in the household chores of the princely home.
The couple made numerous official visits to all 47 prefectures of Japan and to more than 80 countries. In 1986, he was also the first member of the imperial family to take the subway.
In December 2013, he publicly thanked his wife for being by his side since the beginning of their union, an agreed upon but not anecdotal statement, while women in the imperial family are often stifled by protocol.
When Emperor Shōwa died on January 7, 1989, Akihito succeeded him on the throne at the age of 55. In a short ceremony, he immediately received, in the presence of Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita, the imperial insignia:
A new era was also immediately proclaimed by Cabinet Secretary General Keizō Obuchi to officially begin the next day:
Heisei, usually translated as "achievement of peace." As tradition dictates, this name comes from passages in the Chinese Classics, in this case the Historical Memoirs, where the expression "fulfillment of peace, within and without "
is used to refer to the reign of the mythical Chinese emperor Shun, and the Documentary Classics, which uses the expression "fulfillment of peace, on earth as in heaven ".
The name thus refers to the idea of total and omnipresent peace, whether "both within the country and without, in heaven and on earth ".
He was officially enthroned during the traditional ceremony of Sokuirei no gil on 12 November 1990. This ceremony, the first to take place since the establishment of the 1947 Constitution, which removed all power and its divine character from the emperor, is particularly modified from previous ones:
instead of being held at Kyōto Palace, it is held in the "Pine Room" or "Throne Room " of the "State Hall " at Kōkyo; most of the Shinto symbols it featured are removed from the ritual; it is the first to be held in the presence of foreigners, with more than 500 delegates representing 158 countries adding to the 2,000 Japanese guests;
the Prime Minister addressed the Emperor directly, standing in front of him, and not, as was previously the case, from the palace courtyard, in order to demonstrate that the Japanese regime was now democratic and that the cabinet was no longer subordinate to the monarch.
This ceremony was completed, on 22 and 23 November 1990, by a rite that was this time totally Shintō and secret, during which the emperor thanked the kami for his advent by offering them sacred rice: the festival of the Great Thank You.
The fact that the Imperial Agency and the new emperor maintained these traditions, albeit purged of their most controversial elements,
led to opposition from many associations and parties on the left of the Japanese political spectrum who then reproached the Sokuirei no gi for its cost (the Japanese government having spent fifteen million U.S. dollars to organize the event),
and the Daijōsai as a challenge to the separation of religion and state. Thus, several small attacks took place on the bangs of the festivities, claimed by far-left groups.
Despite the constraints imposed by Japan's constitution on the position of emperor, Akihito repeatedly came out of his reserve to express personal regrets, on behalf of the imperial family, to Asian countries that suffered during the Japanese occupation.
In 1975, he went to Okinawa, a territory that suffered the worst battles of the country. During this trip, he was almost hit by a Molotov cocktail thrown by an activist.
Thus, on April 12, 1989, on the occasion of an official visit by the Prime Minister of the People's Republic of China, Li Peng, he used the term "regrets" for the first time. Later, he was the first emperor to use the word "regrets" in his speech. Later, he was the first emperor of Japan to officially visit China in October 1992, and during this trip, on the 27th, he declareden:
"In the long history of relations between our two countries, there was a tragic period during which my country caused great suffering to the people of China. We have rebuilt our homeland and are strongly resolved to continue on our path as a peaceful country based on our deep regret and desire that such a war never happen again."
Concerning Korea, he also expressed remorse for Japanese abuses in the past, on May 24, 1990, during a meeting with South Korean President Roh Tae-woo who was on an official visit to Japan:
"Thinking of the suffering that your people endured during that unfortunate period, through the fault of our nation, I can only feel the deepest remorse."
He repeated this statement at a dinner with Roh Tae-woo's successor, Kim Dae-jung, on October 8, 1996: "There was a period during which our nation brought great suffering to the people of the Korean peninsula...The deep sorrow I feel about this will never be forgotten."
Finally, in June 2005, the Emperor visited the territory of Saipan (Marianas Archipelago), the site of one of the most important battles of the Second World War (June 15, 1944 to July 9, 1944).
Accompanied by Empress Michiko, he prayed and offered flowers at several memorials to honor Japanese war dead, American soldiers, Koreans forced to fight for Japan and local residents. This was the first trip by a Japanese monarch to a World War II battle site.
Despite this, several of his trips to former countries that had fought or been occupied by Japan during World War II were occasions for protests against the fact that the Japanese state had not, to this day, clearly, precisely and officially acknowledged its responsibility for the conflict.
The most striking incident took place in London in 1998, during an official visit of the emperor at the invitation of Queen Elizabeth II and Prime Minister Tony Blair, when the British former prisoners of war who had survived the Japanese camps decided to turn their backs as the carriage carrying the emperor passed by, while some burned a Japanese flag.
However, the associations of former Japanese prisoners of war specified that this was not in itself a personal action against the emperor, who was exempt from any responsibility in the imperialist policy of his country because of his young age during the war, but against the ambiguous attitude of the Japanese authorities.
During this trip, however, the emperor was invested in the Order of the Garter by the queen. The next official visit of the imperial couple to Britain, in May 2007, was much less troubled.
On August 15, 2015, Akihito expressed "deep remorse" for World War II on the 70th anniversary of the end of the conflict, a first for the emperor at an anniversary ceremony of the country's surrender.
In 2015, when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wanted to restore Japan's military and put the emperor back at the center of the nation, in contrast to the views of the sovereign (who also, unlike the right, has never downplayed Japan's war crimes during World War II), a senior Imperial Agency official recounts:
"At a press dinner, journalists from the palace pressed the grand chamberlain of the imperial household with questions about the state of relations between the prime minister and the emperor.
The latter evaded questions for a long time. Pressed on all sides, he finally took hold of the chopsticks in front of him and, in silence, twisted them until they broke ".
Since his enthronement, the emperor has also increased his efforts to bring the imperial family closer to the Japanese people. The couple has visited all 47 prefectures of the Japanese archipelago at least twice.
The emperor and his wife were particularly present in the wake of natural disasters. In particular, they made their mark following the 1995 earthquake in Kōbe, visiting an emergency shelter for victims in a school gymnasium in the city, without official clothes, to kneel in front of the victims and comfort them by taking their hands.
They did the same shortly after the earthquake in Kōbe. They do the same shortly after the triple disaster on the Pacific coast of Tōhoku in 2011.
Even more, on March 16, 2011, in a rare occurrence, he publicly appeared on Japanese television to deliver a speech in support of the victims of the deadly earthquake and tsunami that had occurred five days earlier, as well as to express his concern about the ensuing nuclear threat at the Fukushima power plant.
The emperor suffered during his youth, when he was still only the crown prince, from tuberculosis, between his 20 and 24 years. This fact was revealed by the emperor himself at the 70th anniversary ceremony of the Japanese Association against this disease in Tōkyō on March 18, 2009.
Diagnosed in December 1953, a few days before his twentieth birthday, the infection could be fought with the recent discovery at that time of new treatments, such as streptomycin (discovered ten years earlier in 1943) and isoniazid (discovered only the previous year, in 1952), and he was declared completely cured in September 1957.
On December 24, 2002, doctors diagnosed the emperor with prostate cancer48 and he had to undergo surgery on January 18, 2003. After a period of convalescence during which his son Crown Prince Naruhito fulfilled his duties, he returned to his official duties on February 18, 2003, after a favourable cabinet vote on the matter.
In a country marked by a tradition of secrecy about the health of the sovereign (the public had only learned of his predecessor's cancer at the time of his death)
and by a tradition of discretion regarding such matters, the fact that the public was immediately informed was seen as one of the signs of the emperor's modernization of the imperial function, especially since it was the first time that a Japanese sovereign underwent surgery outside the palace.
In June 2004, the Imperial Agency also announced that the emperor was to begin treatment in July, again to cure his prostate cancer, which was then showing signs of recurrence.
He also suffered several rises in blood pressure in late November and early December 2008, causing him to interrupt his official appointments on 3 and 4 December.
He also suffered several rises in blood pressure at the end of November and then at the beginning of December, forcing him to interrupt his official appointments on 3 and 4 December.
From November 6 to 24, 2011, he had to leave his official duties to the Crown Prince once again to be hospitalized for pneumonia. On February 18, 2012, he underwent coronary artery bypass surgery following the narrowing of two arteries.
His health problems launched a new debate among the political class and the imperial administration about the need to reform the law of succession.
From November 2011, the Democratic government of Yoshihiko Noda opens discussions with the Imperial Agency to allow the imperial princesses to keep their status after their marriage (or even to give them the possibility to access the Chrysanthemum throne).
At the same time, the Prince of Akishino called for a reform of the law that would allow his father to abdicate, in order to spend the rest of his life free of official obligations that were weighing on his health.
In connection with his health condition, rumors emerged from July 2016 through the print media and television, suggesting that the emperor might abdicate "within a few years," but the Imperial Agency promptly refuted these rumors. In any case, the abdication of an emperor is not provided for in the Constitution of 1947.
Yet, a few days later, the Imperial Agency announced that the emperor would address the Japanese people on August 8, 2016, in a recorded speech.
In this speech, Akihito will be speaking to the Japanese people about the abdication of the emperor. In this speech, Akihito does not use the word "abdication" but emphasizes his declining health from his various surgeries and his "difficulty in performing [his] duties as a symbol of the state. "
On May 19, 2017, Japan's conservative government approved a special bill allowing Emperor Akihito to abdicate in late 2018. However, this law applies only to him and does not benefit his successors.
Parliament passed the law definitively on June 9, 2017, for an abdication and succession within three years. On December 1, 2017, the government announced that the emperor would abdicate on April 30, 2019, in favor of his eldest son Naruhito, who would then be enthroned the following day, May 1.
He formally abdicated on April 30, 2019, at 11:59 p.m., marking the end of the Heisei era and the beginning of the Reiwa era, after a prosperous reign of over 30 years.
On this occasion, he assumed the title of emperor emeritus, in Japanese Jōkōl 12, which is in Japanese history the title for emperors (tennō) who abdicate in favor of a successor.
The last emperor of Japan to renounce the Chrysanthemum Throne was Kōkaku in 1817, who abdicated in favor of his son Ninkō.
Akihito, now emperor emeritus, retires in an imperial palace in Minato district, in Tokyo, not far from Kokyo, where he lives now with his wife. He still appears from time to time in public, always under the ovations of the public.
On January 29, 2020, he fell ill and lost consciousness for a few moments. The next day, he underwent an MRI of his brain but no signs of stroke were found. The Imperial Agency announced that it would nevertheless continue to closely monitor the health of the 86-year-old emperor emeritus.
On 2 April, Akihito and his wife left the Imperial Palace in Tokyo, wearing masks - because of the Covid-19 pandemic that was affecting the whole world - and moved to the Takanawa Imperial Residence in Tokyo, which thus became their official residence.
After his death, he wore the name of "Emperor Emeritus" for the first time.
After his death, he would bear the posthumous name of Emperor Heisei (平成天皇, Heisei Tennō).
In accordance with his wishes, Emperor Akihito will be cremated along with his wife, breaking with an ancestral tradition of over 350 years, before being buried in the Musashi Imperial Cemetery alongside his predecessors.
Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko have three children, with imperial highness treatment and titled at their births:
Their two sons gave them four grandchildren, including three daughters (who are still part of the imperial family at least until their marriage, and who are normally, unless the imperial law is reformed, outside the order of succession) and one boy, also with imperial highness treatment:
Like his father and many members of the imperial family, the emperor developed a passion on the fringe of his official duties for a field of scientific research in which he became an amateur specialist: ichthyology.
He published works on the Gobiidae, 28 articles, from 1963 and 2003, in the journal of the ichthyological society of Japan of which he was a member, and, in the journal Nature, in July 2007, an article entitled Linnaeus and taxonomy in Japan and bearing the signature "By His Majesty the Emperor of Japan ".
He was also the honorary chairman of the 2nd International Conference on Indo-Pacific Fishes in 1985 and edited a paper entitled "Some Morphological Characters Considered to be Important in Gobiid Phylogeny" in the conference proceedings.
His research work has earned him international recognition in this capacity, and he is thus:
In addition to the above-mentioned articles, he has published the following books:
Passionate about the history of science, he also published an article on the early scientific steps of Japan entitled "Early cultivators of Science in Japan" in the journal Science edited by the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1992.
Several gobies are named in his honor, a species, Exyrias akihito and a genus, Akihito.
Emperor Akihito is played by actor Daisuke Tsuji as the crown prince of Japan in the series The Master of the High Castle