The 82-year-old Emperor Akihito has worked tirelessly to encourage the nation through multiple disasters and made numerous trips to former battlegrounds at home and abroad to mourn the war dead, despite the health issues that have come with advanced age.
Upon the death of his 87-year-old father, Emperor Hirohito, who is posthumously known as Emperor Showa, on Jan. 7, 1989, he ascended the throne at the age of 55. He was the first to do so as the “symbol of the state and of the unity of the people,” a new status given to the world’s oldest hereditary monarchy in the post-World War II Constitution, which came into effect in 1947.
Throughout his reign, which has spanned nearly three decades, and despite his age, the Emperor has continued to carry out his official duties, traveling throughout the country and overseas , with his wife, Empress Michiko, 81.
The Emperor had surgery in 2003 to remove prostate cancer and underwent coronary-artery bypass surgery in 2012. He has performed exercises on a regular basis to fight osteoporosis, which is attributed to his cancer treatment.
Since 2009, the Imperial Household Agency has announced measures aimed at reducing the Emperor’s workload in view of his age, saying in May it would decrease his meetings with heads of administrative agencies at the Imperial Palace. He performed around such 270 official duties last year, according to officials.
The Emperor himself said in a news conference before his birthday in 2010 that he was “not planning on making any more major reductions” to his workload.
He has made official visits to 27 countries, 50 overall including his travels when he was the crown prince.
He has visited all 47 prefectures as Emperor to attend events such as the National Sports Festival as well as to offer encouragement to victims in disaster-struck areas, including the Tohoku region in the wake of the massive earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011.
When abroad, the Emperor has placed particular importance on paying tribute to those who were killed in World War II, which Japan fought in the name of his father.
His most recent trip abroad was in late January to the Philippines, where around 1.1 million Filipinos and about 518,000 Japanese soldiers and civilians died during the war.
Over their five-day stay, the Imperial Couple visited memorial sites in and outside Manila to pay respects to those who died in the country during the war that ended with Japan’s surrender in 1945.
In April last year, the Emperor and Empress visited the Pacific island nation of Palau to pay tribute to people who perished in World War II. Around 16,000 Japanese soldiers died in Palau fighting U.S. forces during the last year of the war, along with nearly 2,000 U.S. troops.
The trip, which came in the year of the 70th anniversary of the war’s end and a decade after the Imperial Couple traveled to the Pacific island of Saipan, another former battleground, was reflective of the Emperor’s strong desire for peace.
During the 2005 trip to Saipan in the Mariana Islands for the 60th anniversary of the end of the war, the Imperial Couple paid their respects to those who died in the intense Battle of Saipan that took place from June to July 1944. The Emperor has made explicit the need for Japan to reflect on its aggression in other parts of Asia before and during World War II.
“I think it is most important for us to take this opportunity to study and learn from the history of this war, starting with the Manchurian Incident of 1931, as we consider the future direction of our country,” he said to the public at the beginning of 2015.
From time to time, the Emperor has publicly expressed regret over Japan’s military aggression and colonization of neighboring countries before and during World War II, and communicated his hope for peace through numerous visits to areas torn by war and disaster both at home and overseas.
When he made an official visit to China in 1992, three years after his enthronement, along with the Empress, he said at an evening banquet, “In a certain period of time, our country imposed a great deal of hardship on Chinese citizens and I feel deep sorrow.”
In 1995, a year that marked the 50th anniversary of the end of the war, the Imperial Couple visited Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which were devastated by atomic bombs dropped by the United States in 1945, as well as Okinawa Prefecture, where some of the most intense fighting of the war occurred during the Battle of Okinawa.
The Emperor was born on Dec. 23, 1933, the eldest son of Emperor Showa and Empress Nagako, who is posthumously called Empress Kojun.
As a boy, he took refuge outside Tokyo during World War II, including in Nikko, Tochigi Prefecture, and was 11 years old when the war ended. He later recalled feeling shocked at the sight of the capital, which was rendered barren by U.S. air raids.
At Gakushuin University, he majored in political science and economics. He later switched his student status to that of an auditor after traveling to Europe and the United States for an extended period of time.
In addition to a formal education, the Emperor learned diplomatic values as well as the role of a symbolic emperor in tutoring sessions with former Keio University President Shinzo Koizumi and English-language tutor Elizabeth Vining.
As crown prince, he visited European countries and the United States in 1953, and attended the coronation of British Queen Elizabeth II in place of his father.
In April 1959, he married Michiko Shoda, the eldest daughter of former Nisshin Seifun President Hidesaburo Shoda, two years after she graduated from the University of the Sacred Heart in Tokyo.
In marrying the daughter of a businessman, the first commoner ever to marry an heir to the Chrysanthemum Throne, the Emperor nurtured the image of a new Imperial family to which the public, still recovering from the war, could better relate.
The Imperial Couple have three children — Crown Prince Naruhito, Prince Akishino and Princess Sayako, who became Sayako Kuroda when she married a commoner in 2005 and left the Imperial family.
Their four grandchildren are Princess Aiko, the only child of Crown Prince Naruhito and Crown Princess Masako, and the three children of Prince Akishino and Princess Kiko — Princess Mako, Princess Kako and Prince Hisahito.
The Emperor is also an ichthyologist, specializing in the taxonomy of gobioid fish.