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.

But Naruhito is not like previous emperors. The media has speculated that he will be Japan’s “first modern monarch”.

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, much like the British royal family,” says Imperial expert, Dr Hideya Kawanishi.

But, according to former royal reporter Christopher Lee, much of the reason why Queen Elizabeth II is so respected in 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.

Prince or pauper?

How much personality should a ruler show? The constitution says that Naruhito serves the people of Japan. If society is no longer strict and cold, why should the person who is at the head of it be?

But monarchs are not celebrities. 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 a ruler starts to rely on personality, traditions are lost and the monarchy becomes unstable.

You Decide

  1. Would you like to be a monarch?


  1. Write a diary entry, up to one page long, from the point of view of Emperor Akahito on the day he ascended the throne. Include the range of emotions he might feel about his old life and his new responsibilities.

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, abdicated due to health issues.
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.

Word Watch

Those who know him describe him as “modest, charming and astute”, according to Jeffrey Kingston, director of Asian Studies at Temple University.
Naruhito wrote a long, university essay 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.
The first emperor to abdicate for 200 years.

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