TOKYO – A historian by training and someone known to sidestep custom and rigid imperial protocol, the next emperor of Japan, Naruhito, will be tasked with modernizing the world’s oldest continuous hereditary monarchy which is steeped in tradition.
Naruhito, 59, is set to become Japan’s 126th emperor after ascending the Chrysanthemum Throne on May 1, following the abdication of his father, Akihito, from whom he will inherit the legacy of bringing the more than 1,000-year-old institution in line with modern-day Japan.
His biography diverges from the preset script for a crown prince; he was brought up by his mother Michiko instead of the Imperial Palace staff, and studied abroad instead at universities reserved for the Japanese elite.
Like his father, he decided to marry a commoner, princess Masako. His wife has been suffering from depression for more than two decades, when Naruhito has constantly supported and defended her against criticism from different sectors of Japanese society. He has even suggested the environment in the Imperial House could be responsible for her ill-health.
FUTURE COSMOPOLITAN EMPERORS
Experts on the Imperial Family have said the fact that both Naruhito and Masako have lived and studied abroad are among the main factors that set them apart from their predecessors, and which could determine the manner in which they carry out their roles.
This gives them plenty of scope to adapt to a rapidly changing Japanese society, in which there are an increasing number of immigrants and greater cultural diversity; they have the ability to unite the people despite that diversity, reporter Kazuo Okubo explained to EFE.
Naruhito got his degree from famed English university Oxford, researching medieval viaducts – a period he has described as the best in his life and during which he took active part in academic debates and frequented local pubs.
UNORTHODOX ACADEMIC BACKGROUND
The crown prince studied History and Humanities at Tokyo’s Gakushuin University, a choice that the Imperial House considered “difficult” and “unusual”; only Naruhito and his uncle, Prince Mikasa, have opted for this field of study, according to historian Eiichi Miyashiro.
“Studying history means looking into the identity of the emperor himself and his roots, and this could be uncomfortable for him,” said Miyashiro, who believes Naruhito’s role as emperor will be based on his knowledge of history and the “macroscopic perspective” he developed during his studies.
Due to his knowledge of transport using viaducts and management of water resources, Naruhito was named honorary president of the United Nations Secretary General’s Advisory Board on Water and Sanitation in 2015, and has taken part in several international events and conferences.
ANOTHER EMPEROR CLOSE TO THE PEOPLE?
Speculation abounds about whether the new emperor will follow in his father’s footsteps, as Akihito has been known for his closeness to the people and intense diplomatic activity that led him to visit several countries while accompanied by the empress.
Due to his wife’s poor health, Naruhito is expected to have a relatively reduced diplomatic agenda compared to his parents, or perhaps “adapt it and make official visits without Masako,” according to Okubo.
He is also expected to be an advocate of pacifism and defend the spirit of the Japanese Constitution, which could be a matter of concern for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who is in favor of reforming an article of the Constitution that limits the scope of its military.
Described as sincere and considerate by those who know him, Naruhito has also shown interest in social and environmental issues such as ageing population, child poverty and climate change.
UNCERTAIN FUTURE OF THE IMPERIAL FAMILY
During his reign, the new emperor will also have to address the delicate question of his successor – something that has become an issue of political debate in Japan – as well as the long term survival of a diminishing Imperial Family.
Naruhito and Masako have only one child, daughter Aiko, 17, who cannot ascend the throne as Imperial Household rules prevent women from holding the position. Accordingly, Naruhito’s younger brother Akishino and his son Hisahito – the only male grandson of Akihito -, 12, are next in line of succession.
In a statement on the occasion of his and Masako’s 25th wedding anniversary a year ago, Naruhito underlined the importance of respecting traditions of the Imperial Family while at the same time responding to the changes in society.
It remains to be seen how such changes will be implemented in line with the centuries of imperial tradition.