Emperor Naruhito turns 61 today and to mark the occasion we thought we’d take a look at the life and times of Japan’s 126th monarch.
1. Naruhito was the first royal to be breastfed by his mother
Born in a makeshift hospital at the palace on February 23, 1960, Naruhito is said to have had a relatively normal upbringing. His mother Michiko – the first commoner to marry into the imperial family – breastfed him and his younger siblings, a role that was previously undertaken by wet nurses. The young prince was allowed to make his own friends and go to coffee shops after school, pleasures that wouldn’t have been allowed for previous generations, including his father.
2. A set of rules on how to take care of Naruhito became a best-selling book
Though his parents chose to raise their first-born themselves rather than rely on wet nurses and maids, they were away a lot on official trips. For those occasions, Michiko left a notebook with written instructions for nannies on how to take care of Naruhito. The list, which included things like hugging him at least once a day and not letting him play with more than one toy at a time, was turned into a book. Titled Naru-Chan Kenpo (The Naruhito Constitution), it became a best-seller.
3. He described Queen Elizabeth II as “laid-back”
After graduating from Gakushuin University in 1983, Naruhito went to Oxford to study for a master’s degree on the history of transportation on the River Thames. Much of his first week in the U.K. was spent in the company of the British royal family, including the Queen, who impressed him with her laid-back manner and the fact that she poured him a cup of tea herself. That short time he spent with the world’s longest-serving monarch and her family features in The Thames and I: A Memoir of Two Years at Oxford, an autobiographical account of the then prince’s stay in Britain.
4. He was once turned away from a nightclub
Barely able to move in Japan without asking for permission, Naruhito enjoyed a new lease of life in the U.K. He learned how to iron and wash his own clothes (though managed to flood the room on his first attempt). He also participated in various sports, went on some pub crawls and was even turned away from a nightclub because he was wearing jeans. He went to a different club shortly after and ended up dancing until 2 am. Reflecting on his two years in Oxford, Naruhito wrote in The Thames and I, “This had been a happy time for me – perhaps I should say the happiest of my life.”
5. Masako turned down his proposals twice
Naruhito first met Masako Owada at a banquet held for the Duchess of Lugo’s visit to Japan in 1986 and pursued her for the next six years. Initially she wasn’t keen and turned down two of his marriage proposals as she didn’t want to give up on her budding career as a diplomat. The Imperial Household Council also had reservations, partly due to the controversy surrounding Masako’s maternal grandfather, Yutaka Egashira. He was the former chairman of Chisso Corporation, the chemical company responsible for the onset of Minamata Disease. Despite this and Masako’s reluctance, Naruhito refused to give in and at the third time of asking she said yes.
6. His parents didn’t attend their wedding ceremony
On June 9, 1993, Crown Prince Naruhito and Masako Owada tied the knot at the Kashiko-dokoro, a palace sanctuary said to enshrine Sun Goddess Amaterasu-omikami. 812 invited guests waited in the Imperial Garden while the 15-minute ceremony took place as they weren’t allowed inside. Naruhito’s parents, Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko stayed in their Imperial sitting until the afternoon waiting for the couple to announce their marriage to them. It took Masako three hours to put on her 30-pound silk junihitoe (12-layered formal court dress).
7. Japan’s system of agnatic primogeniture prevents their child from ascending to the throne
The birth of Aiko – Naruhito and Masako’s only child – in 2001 sparked a debate in this country about the Imperial Household Law on succession which prevents inheritance by or through the female line. In January 2006 Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi pledged to submit a bill recommending the law be amended to the Diet, however, the following month Naruhito’s younger brother Fumihito and his wife Kiko announced they were having a third child and talk of succession revisions were subsequently put on the backburner. Baby boy Hisahito was born on September 6, 2006 becoming second in line to the throne with his father heir presumptive.
8. One of his biggest passions is water conservation
The former crown prince has given speeches and sent video messages at several World Water Forums and served as honorary president of the U.N. Secretary General Advisory Board between 2007 and 2015. His interest in water policies developed after a trip to Nepal in 1987. “Many women and children were gathering around a tap to collect a bit of water from it,” wrote Naruhito in his book From the History of Water Transport to the World’s Water. “It is really hard work and I wondered how long it took them to fill their jars. This scene is what comes to mind when I consider water issues and I think it is the starting point of my activities.”
9. He is the first emperor since Ninko in 1817 to be enthroned after an abdication
In 2016 came the announcement that Emperor Akihito would be stepping down as the ceremonial figurehead of Japan as he felt he could no longer carry out his duties properly due to ill health. A one-off bill was passed a year later allowing him to pass the baton on to his son. The first abdication since Emperor Kokaku renounced his crown more than two centuries ago, Akihito retired on May 30, 2019 with the succession taking place the following day. The official enthronement, held five months later, was attended by state leaders of more than 180 countries, regions and organizations including King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands and Britain’s Prince Charles.
10. Donald Trump gave him a viola
The first foreign leader to meet the new emperor was Donald Trump in May 2019. The US president presented him with a viola made in 1938 by Ivan W. Allison alongside a photo of American composer Aaron Copland. Like his parents, Emperor Naruhito is a keen musician and in 2013 performed on a viola made of debris from the 2011 Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami. “I’m starting to understand the role of the viola,” wrote Naruhito in a brochure for a concert. “It doesn’t stand out, but (is needed because the) harmony becomes lonesome without it …. It’s a joy to have chosen the viola as a friend through which I could meet people and play music together.”