In the years immediately after World War II, at the Peers’ School in Tokyo, a Quaker teacher named Elizabeth Vining liked to give English names to her students, all children of the Japanese nobility.
“I was Eric,” recalls Masao Oda, one of Vining’s former pupils.
His roommate and classmate, a boy named Akihito, was given the name Jimmy. But Akihito pushed back.
“So he stood up and rejected this name given by Mrs. Vining, ‘Jimmy,’ ” Oda recalls. ” ‘I’m not a Jimmy, I’m a crown prince,’ he said.”
Akihito ascended the Chrysanthemum Throne in 1989, succeeding his father, Emperor Hirohito. On Tuesday, he is abdicating and handing over the throne to his son, Crown Prince Naruhito, thus ending the postwar period formally known as Heisei, “achieving peace.”
“A hatred of war”
Emperor Akihito was born in 1933, two years after Japan invaded Manchuria in northern China, a prelude to its role in World War II. Japanese troops fought in the name of Emperor Hirohito. Crown Prince Akihito was expected to grow to become the supreme commander of the nation’s military.
“He was educated and trained to be strong and tough,” recalls Mototsugu Akashi, a childhood classmate of Akihito. “My impression of Akihito, at that time, was that he was more selfish than kind.”
Japan’s defeat in World War II transformed young Akihito into a pacifist, Akashi says.
“That time produced in him strong feelings against war and its chaos. You could call it a hatred of war,” he says.
Akashi believes that the young Akihito spoke about the war with his father, the emperor.
On Jan. 1, 1946, Emperor Hirohito declared he was a mortal, not a divine being. The following year, Japan’s U.S.-drafted postwar constitution took away sovereignty from the emperor and gave it to the Japanese people, keeping the monarch as a figurehead but without political power.
The emperor’s role in modern Japan is worth a robust discussion, says Takeshi Hara, a political scientist and expert on Japan’s imperial system at the Open University of Japan in Tokyo. The problem, he says, is that “even now, people still welcome the emperor like a living god. The emperor and empress try hard to talk to people, but people are not ready to talk to them as human beings. So the conditions are not yet ripe for discussing what the emperor’s role as a symbol of the state should be.”
“A surprising sort of democrat”
Akihito, whose official duties have included conferring prizes and meeting visiting heads of state, has often broken with royal tradition. He is the first Japanese emperor to have married a commoner. Empress Michiko, born Michiko Shoda, came from a Roman Catholic family, a small minority in the country. Akihito has said that he wishes to be cremated after his death — a break with centuries-old traditions of burials in imperial mausoleums. And he has alluded to his own Korean ancestry, to the dismay of Japanese nationalists.
The emperor, who writes short poetry in the ancient Japanese waka form, is a popular figure known for comforting and praying for the victims of earthquakes, tsunamis and other disasters, and for visiting countries invaded by Japan during World War II. Both abroad and at home, he has expressed deep remorse for Japan’s wartime actions.
Akihito’s pacifist views are believed to have created simmering, if unspoken, tensions with a government that has tacked to the political right and wants to cast off postwar restraints on its military, government and monarchy.
Shinzo Abe, one of the country’s longest-serving prime ministers, has been less willing than previous leaders to show contrition for Japan’s role in World War II, angering countries including China and South Korea, which Japan invaded and colonized.
Abe’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party has long pushed to revise the country’s U.S.-drafted constitution so that Japan could maintain and use its military, upgrade the emperor to head of state (rather than symbol of the state) and prioritize public order over individual liberties.
Akihito “has in some ways become a surprising sort of democrat, a surprising pacifist, who is not necessarily feeling comfortable with the government of the day,” says political scientist Koichi Nakano at Sophia University in Tokyo. “And that sort of mistrust is also mutual.”
After Akihito decided to step down, he took his message directly to the Japanese people in a televised address in 2016.
“When I consider that my fitness level is gradually declining,” Akihito said, “I am worried that it may become difficult for me to carry out my duties as the symbol of the state with my whole being, as I have done until now.”
Opinion polls suggest that the vast majority of Japanese citizens support the emperor’s wish to abdicate, seeing it as a sensible decision.
“I’m getting old, so I understand how he feels,” says Mitsuko Yanagiya, in her 70s and visiting Tokyo from Japan’s northeast. “Ah, he’s been working so hard. I want him to have a rest, and pass his duties on to the younger generation.”
In pre-modern times, more than 50 emperors abdicated, but this is the first time in the modern age (starting in the mid-1800s) that a current and former emperor will be alive at the same time. Hara, the political scientist, says that such situations could, in theory, lead to political instability. History has shown that popular loyalties can become divided between royals.
Japan’s Imperial Household Law stipulates that a new heir can only ascend the throne after the death of the current emperor. So in 2017, Japan’s parliament passed a law making a one-off exception for Akihito, leaving unsettled the question of whether future emperors can abdicate.
An equally important question is whether women will be allowed to inherit the throne. Currently, the law forbids it, though Japan has had eight empresses throughout its history. Once Naruhito ascends the throne, the imperial family will be down to three royal heirs. Naruhito has a daughter but no sons, and the country now faces a debate about whether to change its male-only succession rules.
Chie Kobayashi contributed reporting to this story.