Emperor Akihito’s uncle, Prince Mikasa, who served in China during World War II and criticized the war waged in his older brother’s name, was laid to rest Friday in solemn ceremonies attended by the Imperial family, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and other mourners.
Mikasa’s death at the age of 100 — the oldest Japanese royal in recorded history — leaves just four heirs to the Chrysanthemum Throne. The youngest brother of Emperor Hirohito, posthumously known as Emperor Showa, he was fifth in line to the throne.
His death comes amid renewed attention to the future of a monarchy whose past traditionalists say stretches back 2,600 years and whose future currently rests with one 10-year-old boy. Women cannot ascend the throne.
A Shinto priest in white robes walked slowly ahead of the hearse at Tokyo’s Toshimagaoka Cemetery in Bunkyo Ward under bright blue skies to the sound of shakuhachi music. Mikasa’s 93-year-old widow, Princess Yuriko, who served as the chief mourner, followed in a wheelchair.
Akihito’s heir, Crown Prince Naruhito, and Naruhito’s wife, Crown Princess Masako, were in attendance along with dignitaries including Abe and U.S. Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy.
Although the Emperor and Empress Michiko did not attend the ceremony in line with custom, they sent messengers including Grand Chamberlain Chikao Kawai of the Imperial Household Agency.
After a reading by a priest, chief mourners laid offerings of ritual greenery at an altar after which others approached and bowed to pay their respects.
The youngest brother of Emperor Hirohito, who until Japan’s defeat was worshipped as a god, Mikasa served in the military and was posted to Nanking, now known as Nanjing, for about a year from 1943.
China says Imperial Japanese troops slaughtered and raped 300,000 people in what was then its capital in 1937. A postwar Allied tribunal put the death toll for what became known as the Rape of Nanjing at 142,000, but some conservative Japanese politicians and scholars deny a massacre took place at all.
In a 1994 interview with the Yomiuri newspaper, Mikasa was quoted as saying “I was really shocked when an officer told me that the best way to train new soldiers was to use living prisoners of war for bayonet practice because it gave them willpower.”
A history scholar, Mikasa eschewed royal honorifics, preferring to be addressed as “Mikasa-san” like ordinary Japanese. He was also a folk dancing aficionado and enthusiastic ice skater, and enjoyed singing karaoke.
Emperor Akihito, 82, hinted in August that he wants to abdicate — a step unprecedented in modern Japan and not possible under current law.
The remaining four male heirs include 10-year-old Prince Hisahito, the Emperor’s only grandson, raising concerns about the monarchy’s future unless reforms to allow women to inherit and pass on the throne are enacted.
“I hope the passing of Prince Mikasa will become an opportunity to think a bit more about all these issues regarding the Imperial family and succession,” said Naotaka Kimizuka, a specialist in European monarchies at Kanto Gakuin University.
The three older heirs are the Emperor’s two middle-aged sons, Naruhito and Akishino, and his 80-year-old brother, Prince Hitachi.
Mikasa’s body was cremated and interred at the cemetery later in the day, NHK said.
The prince was admitted to St. Luke’s International Hospital in Tokyo in May for acute pneumonia. His heart functions deteriorated suddenly before he died on Oct. 27 of heart failure.
Several funeral rites have already been held.