Modern emperor ascends Japan’s ancient throne

God-like: In Japan, the emperor is called Tennō which means “heavenly sovereign”.

Emperor Naruhito is an Oxford-educated globe-trotter who wrote a book about London’s River Thames. Some think he marks a turning point for Japan’s insular, conservative monarchy.

He is a small, charming man with an Oxford degree and an obsession with transport on the River Thames. In his memoir, The Thames and I, then-Crown Prince Naruhito reflected on student life and his love of tennis, as well as his 20 favourite Oxford pubs.

Now, following the abdication of Emperor Akahito, Naruhito is the head of the world’s oldest monarchy.

Yesterday, the new Emperor Naruhito was handed two of the country’s most sacred objects, an ancient sword and a jewel, in the Imperial Palace.

With that, the 59-year-old became the 126th ruler to ascend to the Chrysanthemum throne. As recently as the World War Two, Japan’s emperors were regarded as demi-gods, descended from the sun goddess Amaterasu.

But Naruhito is not like previous emperors. He is passionate about climate change and water conservation. The media has speculated that he will be Japan’s “first modern monarch”, having spent decades creating a life outside of the palace.

Naruhito was the first Japanese emperor to be raised by his own parents, rather than palace staff. Imperial expert Dr Hideya Kawanishi says that he has always “emphasise[d] family over work”.

And his wife, Empress Masako, is not a traditional consort. She gave up a career as Harvard-educated diplomat to marry into royalty.

In 2017, after Akahito announced his abdication, Naruhito was clear about the monarchy’s need to be open to the modern world.

“I believe that just as new winds blow in every age, the role of the imperial family changes in each age as well,” he said.

“[Naruhito] believes it is necessary to be in touch with the people,” says Kawaniski. “Much like the British royal family.”

But, according to former royal reporter Christopher Lee, much of the reason why Queen Elizabeth II is so respected is because the public know so little about her.

“Throughout her reign, the Queen kept her distance from her subjects — unlike her children and grandchildren, who are gossip fodder,” he wrote.

Emperor Akahito increased public appearances, but only spoke twice on television in his 30-year reign. He remains incredibly popular with the Japanese people.

Prince or pauper?

How can a ruler be the symbol of a nation and an individual at the same time? Should they keep those two roles separate? The constitution says that Naruhito serves the people of Japan. If society is no longer strict, aloof and cold, why should the person who symbolises it be?

But monarchs are not celebrities. Why are we obsessed with public figures being relatable? The Queen is one of history’s most successful monarchs precisely because she hasn’t put herself, as an individual, before her sense of duty. When an institution starts to rely on personality, it is bound to be unstable.

You Decide

  1. Would you like to be a monarch?
  2. Should we abolish royal families?

Activities

  1. Write a diary entry, up to a page long, from the perspective of Emperor Akahito on the day he ascended the throne. Include the range of emotions he might be feeling about his old life and his new responsibilities.
  2. Choose a monarch from history who interests you. Make a one-page fact file about their life and conclude with a few sentences about why you think they were a good or bad ruler.

Some People Say...

“With the royal family, you don’t want to see them as people because it takes the sheen off.”

Claire Foy

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Yesterday, Japan’s Crown Prince Naruhito became Emperor Naruhito following a ceremony in the Imperial Palace. It came a day after his father, Emperor Emeritus Akahito, formally abdicated due to health issues. He was the first Japanese emperor to abdicate in about 200 years. Each emperor’s reign is given its own name from an ancient poem. Naruhito’s will be known as Reiwa, which means “beautiful harmony”.
What do we not know?
If Naruhito will be as popular an emperor as his father. The signs are promising: he and his wife Empress Masako have been consistently well-liked by the public. It remains to be seen how much Naruhito may try to modernise the monarchy. He may change rules that ban women from becoming emperor, as there is a shortage of male heirs.

Word Watch

Charming
Those who know him describe him as “modest, charming and astute”, according to Jeffrey Kingston, director of Asian Studies at Temple University.
Transport
Naruhito wrote his dissertation on 18th-century methods of transport on the River Thames. His fascination with transport stemmed from discovering an ancient road in the palace gardens as a child.
Abdication
The first emperor to abdicate for 200 years.
Chrysanthemum throne
An abstract concept to refer to the monarchy, rather than a real chair.
World War Two
After the war, the US forced Japan to adopt a constitution that would restrict the powers of emperor and stop the country from going to war again.
Demi-gods,
Someone who is part-god.
Diplomat
Masako struggled to adapt to the pressures of royal life, especially the public interest about whether she would provide a male heir. The couple have one daughter.