Japan's new royal couple give monarchy fresh spin

Japan's Emperor Naruhito and Empress Masako greeting well-wishers during their first public appearance at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo in May. PHOTO: REUTERS
Japan's Emperor Naruhito and Empress Masako greeting well-wishers during their first public appearance at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo in May. PHOTO: REUTERS

TOKYO • Emperor Naruhito and Empress Masako of Japan have brought a more relaxed touch to one of the world's oldest monarchies, chatting in English with foreign visitors, laughing with children and even playing with dogs.

They are Japan's first imperial couple with university degrees, to speak several languages and to have years of experience of living abroad - when the emperor even did his own laundry.

Six months after formally ascending to the Chrysanthemum Throne, they appear to be fulfilling hopes that they will make it more international and bring it closer to the lives of ordinary people.

They have also pleasantly surprised many Japanese who worried they might have trouble living up to their predecessors, Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko. This was particularly so for Empress Masako, who has struggled for years with what palace officials term an "adjustment disorder".

"Though the previous emperor and empress were seen as being close to the people, these two seem even closer. I think it's because they appear to be more like ordinary people," said Nagoya University's assistant history professor Hideya Kawanishi. "They're just suited to the current era in so many ways... there are photos showing the emperor with a smartphone. They seem a lot more like us."

Emperor Naruhito, 59, the eldest of three children, is the first to be cared for by his mother instead of being raised by wet nurses and tutors. His parents made efforts to give him an ordinary childhood, including sending him to school with a packed lunch.

A student of water transport, he graduated from Gakushuin University and then spent two years at Oxford, which he has described as some of the best years of his life.

He defied palace officials to marry diplomat Masako Owada, now 55, who was largely raised abroad. The two have one child, 17-year-old Aiko, who as a woman cannot ascend the throne.

The couple's overseas experience was evident when they hosted a banquet for US President Donald Trump in May. After chatting with Mr Trump and his wife, Melania, Emperor Naruhito finally deferred to the protocol of using an interpreter.

 

The couple also seem a world away from the staid, aloof court of old. Emperor Naruhito has posed for selfies with the public while overseas, and in Japan the two laughed with children and played with dogs during a recent visit to a dog shelter.

REUTERS

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 17, 2019, with the headline 'Japan's new royal couple give monarchy fresh spin'. Print Edition | Subscribe