In June 2011, three months after savage tsunami devastated Japan’s northeast coastline, Crown Prince Naruhito and Crown Princess Masako were visiting Miyagi — one of the three hardest-hit prefectures — to get a firsthand look at the gut-wrenching aftermath of the disaster and commiserate with evacuees caught in the throes of shock, despair and grief.
In the months that followed, the pair made a similar trek to the two other prefectures, Fukushima and Iwate, kicking off what would become almost yearly visits to the Tohoku region.
Their repeated trips appear to reflect the Crown Prince’s lifelong aspiration to emulate his parents — Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko — whom he has lauded for their strong identification with the public. Citing their dedication to visiting survivors of disasters, the Crown Prince has over the past 30 years repeatedly voiced his vision of an ideal emperor — one who can “share the joys and sorrows of the people” and always remain close to them in their thoughts.
And that, it seems, is how he aspires to conduct himself when he ascends to the Chrysanthemum Throne on May 1, following what will be his father’s historic abdication the day before.
“I would like to continue to think of the people and pray for them, and just as Their Majesties do, always be close to the people in their thoughts, and share their joys and sorrows,” the Crown Prince told a news conference in 2017, when asked how he wants to fulfill his future role as the symbol of the state, as defined by the postwar Constitution.
Born in 1960, the Crown Prince will turn 59 on Saturday, making him the oldest to take the throne since the Meiji Era, which began in 1868.
Unlike two of his predecessors, Emperors Akihito and Hirohito (posthumously known as Emperor Showa), the Crown Prince has no firsthand recollection of World War II — a fact he often refers to when asked his views on the subject.
“Although I was born after the war and did not experience it, I think that today, where memories of the war have started to fade, it is important to look back in a humble way on the past and pass on correctly the tragic experiences of war,” the Crown Prince told a news conference before his birthday in 2015.
He was also given an upbringing his mother, Empress Michiko, tried to keep as typical as possible, late journalist Toshiya Matsuzaki, who devoted his career to following the Imperial family, wrote in his 2016 book detailing her child-rearing approach.
In the book, titled “Naruchan Kenpo” (“Naru-chan’s Constitution”), Matsuzaki said his mother was so alarmed by his lack of experience with children his own age that after his enrollment in a primary school, she invited all of his classmates in groups of three or four to the palace over the course of a year, so he could learn the importance of friendship.
One day, the Crown Prince returned home from school panting in excitement and asked the nearby adults about “instant noodles” — the culinary innovation that was the talk of the town in the 1960s. His mother, careful to ensure he “wouldn’t feel isolated (in school) due to his peculiar background,” immediately arranged for the ramen to be served on the dining table, watching in satisfaction as he devoured it, Matsuzaki wrote.
But the “typical upbringing” policy didn’t stop the Crown Prince from following in the footsteps of many in his family and receiving his entire education, from primary school to university, at the elite Gakushuin school.
In 1983, at age 23, he embarked on a two-year program at the University of Oxford in England, which provided him a rare respite from his sequestered life in Japan. In his 1993 book, he described this period as the “happiest time” of his life.
He officially became Crown Prince following the death of his grandfather, Emperor Showa, in 1989 before marrying Masako Owada, then a high-flying, Harvard-educated diplomat, in 1993. The pair gave birth to Princess Aiko in 2001.
In the minds of many Japanese, the Crown Prince is well remembered for the sheer enthusiasm with which he proposed to his wife during his early 30s, pledging, as she later described, to “protect you with all my might for the rest of your life.”
But their marriage has trodden a rocky path as the Crown Princess grappled with immense pressure to give birth to a male heir who could ultimately ascend the throne under the monarchy’s male-only succession system.
In 2004, the Crown Prince stunned the nation by obliquely accusing the Imperial Household Agency — the entity that administers all affairs of the Imperial family — of suppressing the former diplomat’s wish to make overseas trips and thereby negating her personality.
“Princess Masako, giving up her job as a diplomat to enter the Imperial Household, was greatly distressed that she was not allowed to make overseas visits for a long time,” Crown Prince Naruhito told a news conference on May 10, 2004.
She “has worked hard to adapt to the environment of the Imperial Household for the past 10 years, but from what I can see, I think she has completely exhausted herself trying to do so.
“It is true that there were developments that denied Princess Masako’s career up to then as well as her personality driven by her career,” he said.
The Crown Prince didn’t explicitly point his finger at the Imperial Household Agency. But his unusually strong comments were widely interpreted by the media as taking a swipe at the agency’s policy of reducing his wife’s foreign trips so she can focus on giving birth to a male heir.
Her anguish, as described by the prince, triggered a groundswell of outrage against the agency, which soon found itself deluged with hundreds of irate email messages. In July that year, the ailing Crown Princess was diagnosed with an “adjustment disorder,” a type of mental illness.
“I don’t think it’s beneficial in any way to identify and disclose who I was referring to when I said there had been moves afoot to deny an important part of Masako’s personality influenced by her career,” the Crown Prince explained at a news conference months later.
“What I wish is for Masako to regain her confidence and vitality, and make use of her background to engage in an activity more in line with the changing times,” he said.
This reference to Imperial duties, changing times and “new requirements of society” is another recurring theme in the Crown Prince’s public addresses. In particular, he often cites his expertise in water issues as an example of how he, and in turn other members of the Imperial family, can better contribute to society.
At Oxford, the Crown Prince delved into the 18th century transportation system on the River Thames in London, publishing his findings entirely in English in a document titled “The Thames as Highway” in 1989. In 2007, he was appointed honorary president of the U.N. Secretary-General’s Advisory Board on Water and Sanitation. He has since frequently given keynote speeches on water management at global forums.
“I learned that in the world today the ratio of disasters related to water among all natural disasters is exceedingly high,” he said in a news conference a year after the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami.
“I wish to thoroughly investigate past earthquakes and tsunami, so that I can communicate the importance of preparing for any disasters that may occur, not only to the people in Japan but also to the rest of the world,” he said.
Aside from being a renowned water expert, the Crown Prince is also an experienced mountain climber and violist. But many probably wonder: What is he like as a person?
Enter Kiyokazu Kanze, a prominent noh performer who happens to be one of the Crown Prince ‘s former Gakushuin classmates from primary through high school.
Asked what the Crown Prince was like as a boy, Kanze recalled one episode when he was on a field trip with a small group of classmates, including Kanze himself.
During the group’s explorations, one of them failed to meet up with the rest of the team at the assigned place and time, leaving the Crown Prince and others waiting for him and growing increasingly panicky over their derailed itinerary. After 15 minutes, one of them suggested they depart for the next destination, but “his Imperial Highness was very patient, saying ‘just five more minutes,'” Kanze recalled.
When the missing boy eventually showed up, the Crown Prince “didn’t show the slightest hint of anger, and welcomed him back with nothing but a smile,” he said.
“It’s not like I know everything about his Imperial Highness,” Kanze added, “but as a person who spent a portion of our childhood days together, I’m confident he will assume the throne with perfect equanimity, and remain the way he has always been throughout his life — patient, compassionate and thankful.”