Akihito became Japan’s 125th reigning emperor in 1989 upon the death of his father, Hirohito. According to Japanese mythology, the emperors, beginning with the legendary Jimmu, descendant of the sun goddess Amaterasu, had ruled over the country since 660 b.c.e. Although the emperors had de jure powers, it was the shoguns who ruled over most of Japanese history. With the Meiji Restoration in 1868, Emperor Meiji became the head of state, holding sovereign power. The postwar constitution of 1947 again reduced the role of the emperor to one of symbolism.
Akihito was born on December 23, 1933, the first male child of Emperor Hirohito and Empress Nagako. In keeping with the royal tradition, Akihito at the age of three was separated from his parents and was brought up by court attendants, tutors, chamberlains, and nurses. However, in a departure from custom, at the age of six Akihito was sent to school along with commoners. During World War II when the Allied countries, led by the United States, attacked Japan, Akihito was moved to other provincial cities far away from Tokyo for safety.
At the end of the war in 1945, when the U.S. Army occupied Japan, Akihito attended high school and college with the sons of the elite class. A Philadelphia Quaker, Elizabeth Gray Vining, was made Akihito’s personal tutor and taught him Western customs and values. He also briefly studied politics and civics at Gakushuin University in Tokyo.
Akihito was invested as a crown prince in 1952, when he was 18. In 1959 he married Shoda Michiko; she was the first commoner to marry into the imperial family.
When his father died on January 7, 1989, at the age of 87, Akihito became the emperor and took his assigned role as the symbolic head of state.
- Keene, Donald. Emperor of Japan. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002;
- Kinoshita, June, and Nicholas Palevsky. Gateway to Japan. Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1998;
- Vining, Elizabeth Gray. Windows for the Crown Prince: Akihito of Japan. New York: Tuttle Publishers, 1990.
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