Japan's Emperor Akihito worked to heal wounds of war, get closer to people

TOKYO (Reuters) – Japan’s Cabinet approved a Bill on Friday (May 19) to allow Emperor Akihito to step down, paving the way for the first abdication by a Japanese emperor in nearly two centuries, after he said last year he feared age might make it hard to carry out his duties.

No date has been fixed for the abdication, though media reports have said it will likely take place in 2018, which would mark nearly 30 years on the throne.  

Following are some facts about the 83-year-old who became emperor on the death of his father, Hirohito, in January 1989.

Working to heal the wounds of war

The first emperor never to have been considered divine, Akihito as a child experienced Japan’s rise to militarism and its defeat in World War II, which was waged in his father’s name.  The soft-spoken Akihito dedicated himself to deepening international understanding through visits overseas, sometimes in the face of protests.

In 1992, he became the first Japanese monarch in living memory to visit China, where bitter memories of Japan’s wartime invasion run deep. He also tried to smooth ties between Japan and South Korea, frayed by the legacy of Japan’s 1910-1945 colonisation of the Korean peninsula.

Drawing closer to the people

Akihito became the first emperor to wed a commoner with his 1959 marriage to Michiko Shoda, daughter of an industrialist.  The two worked to craft an image of a “middle-class monarchy”, with their three children encouraged to live more like ordinary Japanese.

Such efforts helped shield the monarchy from criticisms levelled at more ostentatious royals abroad.  

The couple became known for their efforts to comfort the survivors of disasters, such as the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami, dressing informally and even kneeling down to talk at evacuation centres.  

In a different example of openness, the public was informed when Akihito was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2002, as well as when he had heart surgery. That was in contrast to his father, whose cause of death, intestinal cancer, was only revealed after he died.  

The next emperor 

Akihito will be succeeded by Crown Prince Naruhito, 57, the first Japanese emperor to have received a university degree, from Oxford University.  

A student of mediaeval transport who espouses environmental causes and has called for more men to be hands-on fathers, Naruhito defied palace officials to marry Masako Owada, a Harvard- and Oxford-educated diplomat.  

Masako, 53, has suffered from depression brought on by the stress of palace life and demands she bear a royal heir, and her public appearances have been limited in recent years.  

Naruhito will also be the first Japanese emperor in modern times who has not fathered an heir. He and Masako have a teenage daughter, Aiko, who cannot succeed him since women are not permitted to inherit the Chrysanthemum Throne.

Naruhito’s heirs are his younger brother, Prince Akishino, and Akishino’s son, Hisahito.