Who is Emperor Akihito?

Whether your New Year will have meant staying up all night counting down and celebrating, ringing the bell or queuing up at a shrine, a nice way to start 2016 would be to hear the Emperor’s official greeting, and to catch him in one of his seldom-made public appearances.

You may know him as the Emperor of Japan, or simply as Akihito (not if you’re Japanese, though, he’s only ever referred to as Tennō Heika, or his ‘Imperial Majesty’ here) or you may not be so familiar with him. After all, his position is mostly symbolic, and unlike royalty in other countries, the emperor of Japan is not the nominal head of state.

He makes only occasional public appearances, spending most of his time within the grounds of the Imperial Palace hosting important visitors and presiding over official events. And, following tradition, he will go down in history as Emperor Heisei, after the name of the current era, which started in 1989 when he succeeded to the throne.

The Emperor and his wife Michiko are not only quite friendly-looking, but they’re also interesting people. Akihito was a bit of a trendsetter in the whole Emperor lineage, shaking things up by marrying outside of ‘royal’ lineage. The couple apparently met while playing tennis in Karuizawa, and Michiko was the first ever commoner to marry into the imperial family. Even though she was the daughter of a wealthy industrialist, she wasn’t of the royal pedigree.

Akihito also made history (and upset some hard-liners) when he acknowledged Korean descent in the Imperial family’s lineage during a press conference on his birthday, in 2001.

However, one of his wishes was to bring the Imperial family closer to the people, and Akihito has gone beyond his predecessors in his efforts to connect with the Japanese people and to serve as an ambassador to the rest of the world.

In 1995, after the earthquake in Kobe, the windbreaker-clad emperor personally visited and consoled the victims. He made a historic televised appearance following the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, urging people not to give up hope and to help each other. He also has offended some Japanese nationalists by offering apologies to countries wronged by Japan in the past, including those that suffered under his father’s rule during the second world war.

He is the first emperor who has never been worshipped or given political power, and his modern Japanese is much more colloquial than any of his predecessors, part of the apparent effort to relate to the people. As Akihito slightly distances himself from tradition, some Japanese nationalists are getting upset, but Japanese society is changing and he’s following suit.

Also, did you know that he’s a part-time ichthyologist, or in more simple terms, a fish expert? He has written essays for scholarly nature journals and is an honorary member of London’s prestigious Linnean Society. His work with the tiny goby fish was recognized in 2006 when two researchers named a new species of goby after the emperor (the almost Latin-sounding E.akihito) after he had collected specimens of the fish and sent them to the researchers for identification.

If any of those facts are prompting you to get to know Akihito better, you can get a closer look by ‘meeting’ him on January 2, during his annual greeting (the Imperial Palace inner grounds are only open to the public twice a year). The Imperial Family are scheduled to make five appearances on the Palace balcony, at 10:10, 11:00, 11:50, 13:30 and 14:20. Bringing a flag is optional!

Emperor Akihito New Year Greeting (Japanese)

When: January 2, 10:10, 11:00, 11:50, 13:30 and 14:20.

Where: Imperial Palace (see map)

Main Image: The Emperor in 2009 (Creative Commons)

Text by Vivian Morelli

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