Emperor Akihito’s marriage 50 years ago to Empress Michiko, the first commoner ever married to an heir to the Chrysanthemum Throne, brought a breath of fresh air into the Imperial family and made it easier for the people to relate to them than before.
Their marriage also paved the way for other commoners to follow in her footsteps and join the Imperial household. The couple’s sons thus married outside royalty, with Crown Prince Naruhito marrying Masako Owada and Prince Akishino marrying Kiko Kawashima.
The Emperor was the Crown Prince when in summer 1957 in the resort of Karuizawa, Nagano Prefecture, he met his future bride, Michiko Shoda, the oldest daughter of Hidesaburo Shoda, president of the flour milling company Nisshin Seifun, during a mixed doubles tennis match.
More than a year after the “romance on the tennis court,” the Imperial Household Agency announced their engagement in November 1958.
News of the engagement prompted people to affectionately call the future Empress “Mitchy.” The “Mitchy boom” spread, especially among women, and numerous women’s magazines carried pictures and stories reporting on almost every aspect of her life.
The two married in a traditional Shinto ceremony on April 10, 1959. The Empress, born Oct. 20, 1934, was 24, while the Emperor was 25.
Sales of televisions at that time are believed to have risen due to people wanting to watch the parade following the wedding ceremony. The number of TV set sales doubled to top the 2 million mark that year.
The people, slowly recovering from defeat and destruction from the war, were encouraged by the marriage, which became the symbol of a new, postwar Imperial family.
The two rode a carriage through the streets of Tokyo with the cavalcade greeted by crowds of over 500,000 along the 8.8-km route. An estimated 15 million people watched televised images of the pageant.
However, some conservatives criticized the selection of the Crown Princess from among the common people.
A key critic was Yukio Mishima, one of postwar Japan’s most celebrated writers and an ardent nationalist.
“The Imperial system became tabloidesque in an effort to democratize the system,” he said. “The idea of connecting (the Imperial household) with the people by losing its dignity is wrong.”
The following year, on Feb. 23, Naruhito was born, followed by Akishino on Nov. 30, 1965. The couple’s only daughter, Princess Nori, now Sayako Kuroda by marriage, was born on April 18, 1969.
The young Crown Couple defied tradition and raised their children themselves, with the Crown Princess preparing meals, bathing them and taking them for walks.
The Crown Prince himself had been separated from his parents, the late Emperor Hirohito and Empress Nagako, at age 3, as was tradition.
The Crown Couple at the time had their own ways of child-rearing, with the father saying, “Customs in the Imperial household change along with changes in society.”
His idea about the Imperial system and household appeared to be influenced by private English lessons with Elizabeth Vining, a tutor from the United States, who exposed him to a new sense of the values of democracy in his high school days at his father’s request.
Reflecting on his marriage at the young age of 25, now Emperor Akihito said, “I was able to attain peace in my mind that I had never felt before the marriage.”
Reflecting on New Year’s about his half a century marriage, the Emperor said: “Together with the Empress, I hope to continue to strive for the country and the people.”
Since his days as Crown Prince, the Emperor has been committed to standing by the people, especially the socially vulnerable, including victims of war and natural disaster.