Japan's Empress Michiko 'shocked' when she saw newspaper headlines of Emperor's wish to abdicate

Japan's Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko read a book at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo on Sept 23, 2016.
Japan's Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko read a book at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo on Sept 23, 2016. PHOTO: REUTERS

TOKYO (Reuters) - Japanese Empress Michiko, who turned 82 on Thursday (Oct 20), said she felt "shocked and pained" when she first saw newspaper headlines about her husband, Emperor Akihito, wanting to abdicate.

Emperor Akihito, 82, hinted two months ago at abdication, saying in a rare televised address that he worried age might make it hard for him to fulfil his royal duties. Such a step is unprecedented in modern Japan and not possible under current law, but a panel of experts met for the first time this week to discuss how it might be done.

In written remarks issued to mark her birthday, Empress Michiko - the first commoner to marry into the Japanese imperial family when she wed Akihito in 1959 - said she had heard the Emperor's August video address and knew he had discussed his decision with their sons, Crown Prince Naruhito and Prince Akishino.

"However, when I saw the words 'abdicate when alive' in big letters on the newspaper front pages, it was a huge shock," she added. "It might have been because I'd never come across that expression even in history books, but for a second or two I was both surprised and pained. Perhaps I was a little too sensitive."

Japanese use extremely formal language to refer to the imperial family, and the phrase used for Emperor Akihito's stepping down is literally "abdicate while alive".

Hailed as a Cinderella figure when news of her engagement broke, the most enduring image of the Empress Michiko for many Japanese is of her at her husband's side, whether dressed in slacks and a windbreaker at the ocean, waltzing with him at a party or, in their later years, with her hand at his arm in support.

But this calm, almost cosy contentment was hard won for Empress Michiko, who met the young Akihito on a tennis court and broke centuries of tradition by being the first commoner to marry into Japan's imperial family.

The slender daughter of a wealthy industrialist endured reported bullying at the hands of court officials that saw her fade into a silent shadow of her former self several years after her marriage.

But eventually she played an integral role in crafting the post-war image of a family who tried to come as close as they could to ordinary Japanese.

In later years she became known for chatting to people she met at public events, even embracing women who had lost their homes in the 1995 Kobe earthquake - a huge break from tradition in a nation where the emperor was considered divine until the end of World War II.