Emperor Naruhito ascended the throne on May 1, a day after his 85-year-old father, now referred to as Emperor Emeritus Akihito, became the first living Japanese monarch to abdicate in over 200 years.
In accordance with his ascension, the new imperial era of Reiwa (meaning “beautiful harmony”) began, bringing the 30-year Heisei (meaning “achieving peace”) Era to a close.
The 59-year-old earlier signaled his intent to adapt to “the changing times,” while also saying his years with his parents would serve as “major guideposts” for him as he performs his nonpolitical duties as the symbol of the state in the years ahead.
In his first speech following ascension on May 1, the emperor vowed to fulfill his role as the symbol of the state.
“In acceding to the throne, I swear that I will reflect deeply on the course followed by his majesty the emperor emeritus and bear in mind the path trodden by past emperors, and will devote myself to self-improvement,” he said in his speech broadcast live on TV.
“I will act according to the Constitution and fulfill my responsibility as the symbol of the state and of the unity of the people of Japan, while always turning my thoughts to the people and standing with them,” he said.
On the duties of a monarch, the emperor has said he believes it would be essential to “stand by the people, listen to their voices and be close to them in their thoughts.”
Emperor Naruhito was born on Feb. 23, 1960, as the eldest son of Emperor Emeritus Akihito and Empress Emerita Michiko a year after their marriage. His now 85-year-old mother, formerly known as Michiko Shoda, was the first crown princess who was born an ordinary citizen.
His name Naruhito, given by his grandfather Emperor Hirohito, posthumously known as Emperor Showa, consists of two Chinese characters taken from an ancient book of Chinese Confucian philosophy and means “a man who acquires heavenly virtues.”
Unlike his father who grew up away from his parents in line with imperial family custom, Emperor Naruhito; his younger brother Crown Prince Akishino, 53; and younger sister Sayako Kuroda, 50, who left the imperial household upon marrying Yoshiki Kuroda in 2005, were raised by their parents.
The emperor entered Gakushuin University’s kindergarten in 1964 and attended the university’s elementary, junior high and high schools; Gakushuin University was initially established as a school for aristocrats in the 19th century.
“His majesty was gentle and always calm, and he naturally attracted people,” said Akihiko Imai, a friend of the emperor since junior high school.
In 1978, the emperor enrolled in the university’s Faculty of Letters, majoring in history. Before his graduation in 1982, he wrote a diploma thesis on medieval water transport throughout Japan’s Seto Inland Sea.
After advancing to the university’s graduate school in April 1982, he studied for two years at the University of Oxford’s Merton College from 1983 where he lived in a dormitory for the first time.
During his stay, he said he casually visited pubs and bought posters of American actresses Jane Fonda and Brooke Shields to decorate his room.
A friend from his time at the university noted he is well-prepared and temperamentally suited to the role he assumed after his father’s abdication, reflecting on his early impressions of the royal figure then known as Prince Hiro.
“The Japanese people are fortunate they have him as the emperor, that he represents Japan,” said Keith George, an American lawyer from Charleston, West Virginia, who studied at Oxford for the same two years in the 1980s as Emperor Naruhito.
“Monarchies in some countries have scandals and erode moral standards, (but) Hiro doesn’t have that at all,” George said, describing the new emperor as a “perfect fit” to “maintain tradition but also respect change” during Reiwa.
The emperor’s research theme at Oxford was the history of transportation on the River Thames. He published a paper titled “The Thames as a Highway” in 1989 and was awarded an honorary Doctor of Laws degree by the university in 1991.
This expertise led to him serving as honorary president of the U.N. Secretary-General’s Advisory Board on Water and Sanitation between 2007 and 2015.
Having set himself the goal of finding a partner before turning 30, he married Masako Owada, a career diplomat who spent her early childhood in Moscow and New York, at the slightly later age of 33, in June 1993.
“I will protect you with all my might for the rest of your life,” the then-crown prince said when proposing to her.
Their wedding took place the following year, and the couple’s only child, Princess Aiko, 17, was born on Dec. 1, 2001.
The emperor is known to have a number of hobbies, including mountain climbing, jogging, playing tennis and skiing. He plays viola and was part of an orchestra during his time at Gakushuin University.
The emperor has participated in a variety of events and rituals, both in and outside the Imperial Palace, sometimes on behalf of Emperor Emeritus Akihito in recent years.
In late May, the emperor and empress greeted U.S. President Donald Trump and first lady Melania as the first state guests of the new era.
Chronology of major events related to Emperor Naruhito’s life
- Feb. 23, 1960 — Born the eldest son of Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko.
- April 1978 — Enters Department of History, Faculty of Letters, Gakushuin University.
- April 1982 — Enters Graduate School of Humanities, Gakushuin University.
- October 1983 to October 1985 — Studies in Britain at Merton College, University of Oxford.
- Oct. 18, 1986 — Meets then-diplomat Masako Owada at reception for Princess Elena of Spain.
- March 1987 — Visits Nepal, where he develops interest in issues surrounding water.
- March 1988 — Completes first part of doctorate.
- Jan. 7, 1989 — Moves to first in line for throne upon death of Emperor Hirohito, posthumously called Emperor Showa.
- Feb. 23, 1991 — Officially becomes crown prince after investiture as crown prince.
- April 1992 — Becomes visiting research fellow of the Museum of History of Gakushuin University.
- August 1992 — Crown Prince Naruhito, Masako Owada meet again at home of former diplomat Kensuke Yanagiya.
- June 9, 1993 — Marries Masako Owada.
- February 1995 — Visits areas affected by the January Great Hanshin Earthquake.
- Dec. 1, 2001 — Daughter, Princess Aiko, is born.
- Nov. 1, 2007 — Becomes honorary president of the U.N. Secretary-General’s Advisory Board on Water and Sanitation.
- June 2011 — Visits Miyagi Prefecture, which was hit by the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami.
- March 2013 — Gives keynote speech at special U.N. session on water and disasters at U.N. headquarters in New York.
- June 9, 2018 — Crown Prince Naruhito, Crown Princess Masako celebrate 25 years of marriage.
- May 1, 2019 — Ascends the throne upon the abdication of Emperor Emeritus Akihito.
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