This year marks Emperor Akihito’s 20th year on the Chrysanthemum Throne.
Designated by the Constitution as the “symbol” of the state and required to be politically neutral, the 75-year-old Emperor and the Imperial family are nonetheless often subjected to media scrutiny, particularly in recent years when the rules on succession became an issue.
They can also be caught up in controversy, such as the deep bow U.S. President Barack Obama made, simultaneously with a handshake, when he met the Emperor earlier this month. This triggered a conservative backlash in the U.S., with critics likening the president’s gesture to kowtowing.
But most domestic reporting on the Emperor and Empress Michiko is relatively benign, if not just good PR, such as when the Imperial Couple visit facilities for the elderly and the disabled, or sites damaged by natural disasters.
Following are questions and answers about Emperor Akihito:
What are the Emperor’s duties?
The Emperor can have a rather busy schedule, attending some 200 events in a single year. Key among his official duties are convening Diet sessions, overseeing attestation ceremonies of new administrations, presenting honorary awards to people of merit, and accepting foreign ambassadors and ministers.
In 2007, the Imperial Couple accepted 71 guests from abroad, including royalty and heads of states. They also met arriving and departing ambassadors from 46 countries and the Japanese envoys sent to 113 nations.
How much is budgeted for the Emperor’s annual expenses?
According to the Imperial Household Agency, the Emperor’s expenses can largely be classified into two categories — personal and palace-related.
The Emperor, Empress and other inner-court members of the Imperial family spend their personal expenses on daily living and activities. Although the agency does not provide a breakdown of how much each member of the royal family spends, or what the funds are spent on, ¥324 million was budgeted for this fiscal year.
How did the Emperor spend his childhood?
Born on Dec. 23, 1933, he was the oldest son of Emperor Hirohito (known posthumously as Emperor Showa) and thus became the Crown Prince. Just after turning 3, the young prince was raised separately from his parents and siblings, although not as a commoner.
“I do not know what the brothers’ quarrels are like,” the Emperor has said, according to the book “Tennoke no Yumoa” (“Humor at the Imperial Family”), compiled by Joseijishin Koshitsu-shuzaihan.
As World War II intensified and the situation worsened for Japan, the young Crown Prince and his classmates were evacuated out of Tokyo, where they had been attending the prestigious Gakushuin elementary school.
The young Crown Prince reportedly was appalled when he learned that young boys, as soldiers, were being trained to conduct suicidal charges against enemy tanks.
“Why does Japan have to take the tactic of suicide attacks?” he asked a senior officer, according to the book “Nonfiction Tenno Akihito” (“Nonfiction Emperor Akihito”), by scholar Hidehiko Ushijima.
After Japan’s defeat, the Crown Prince was exposed to U.S.-style democracy, and was tutored in the English language by Elizabeth Vining, an American who had a profound impact on his life.
It was believed his father had asked the head of an educational delegation from the U.S. to arrange for an American to teach his son. Vining was chosen and taught him English and the essence of American democracy.
While in high school, the Crown Prince experienced life in a dormitory. He once sneaked out of the dorm with friends and went by train to Tokyo’s Ginza district, said Toshiya Matsuzaki, a journalist covering the royal family and the author of “Akihito Tenno-Heika” (“His Majesty Emperor Akihito”).
Besides strolling around Ginza, he and his cohorts visited a cafe. Aides later reprimanded them over the escapade, Matsuzaki said.
How did he meet his wife?
The romance is believed to have started in 1957, when he played mixed doubles tennis involving his future bride, Michiko Shoda, a commoner and the daughter of the president of a flour milling company, at a resort in Karuizawa, Nagano Prefecture.
The Imperial Household Agency announced their engagement the following year.
News of the engagement prompted people to affectionately call the future Empress “Mitchy.” The Mitchy boom spread especially among women. Magazines aimed at women carried pictures and stories on almost every aspect of her life.
The couple wed in 1959. Their marriage was considered a symbol of a new, postwar Imperial family, helping to lift the spirits of a population still recovering from defeat and destruction from the war.
Has the Emperor made any observations regarding the war?
After inheriting the throne from his father, he has at times made remarks considered both controversial and politically sensitive.
During an October 1991 visit to Japan by Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands, the Emperor merely said the war made him very sad. An estimated 140,000 Dutch soldiers and civilians were put into prison camps by the Imperial Japanese Army in the Dutch East Indies during the war.
The queen, however, devoted a major portion of her address at a state banquet to the issue.
“Many of my compatriots did not survive the war,” she said. “Those who did return are marked for life by their experiences. Consequently, they are still suffering, in spite of the time that has passed since then.”
The Emperor subsequently devoted more time in commenting about the war when he made an official visit to the Netherlands in May 2000, expressing grief and sadness.
“It grieves our hearts to think that so many people were victimized in their respective ways during that war and that there are still those who continue to bear unhealed scars from it,” he said at a state banquet. “We believe that all of us should make incessant efforts to foster peace so that such events will never be repeated.”
The Emperor and Empress also made headlines during a June 2005 visit to Saipan, where many Japanese jumped off cliffs to their deaths, some clinging to young children, to avoid capture by U.S. forces. They had been under pressure to pay their respects to the dead.
In remarks made ahead of the 20th anniversary of his enthronement earlier this month, the Emperor expressed concern that the people of Japan are forgetting the war.
“What I am rather more concerned about is that history might gradually be forgotten,” he said. “The 60-plus years of the Showa Era taught us many lessons. I believe it is essential for us to learn from the historical facts and prepare ourselves for the future.”
What remarks by the Emperor have caught the public’s attention?
During a news conference to mark his birthday in 2001, the Emperor drew public attention to a historical document that shows one of his eighth-century ancestors descended from the king of an ancient Korean kingdom. He said he felt a certain “kinship” with the Korean Peninsula.
How are relations between the Emperor and the Crown Prince Naruhito and Crown Princess Masako?
Speculation is rife that the Emperor has had a spat with the Crown Prince over the reclusive Crown Princess. She is a former fast-track diplomat who has been suffering a stress-related illness linked to the cloistered and hidebound palace life.
It is believed the row started after the Crown Prince said in 2004, “It is true that there were developments that denied Princess Masako’s career as well as her personality driven by her career.”
After marrying the Crown Prince in 1993, the Harvard- and Oxford-educated Crown Princess reportedly faced pressure to produce a male heir to the throne and started showing symptoms of depression. She was diagnosed with an adjustment disorder in 2004.
The Emperor, however, said he could not fully understand what his son meant to say, which revealed a distance between the two.
While the current Emperor used to visit his father once a week with his family members, the Crown Prince reportedly does not visit his father often, except for official events.
When the Crown Princess gave birth to the couple’s only child, a girl, there was talk of possibly revising laws to allow female succession. That talk ended, however, when his younger brother, Prince Akishino, and his wife, Princess Kiko, produced a son.