Naruhito Now: A Closer Portrait of Japan's Next Emperor

Japan's Crown Prince Naruhito during a visit in Malaysia
Japan's Crown Prince Naruhito during a visit in Malaysia
Kondo Daisuke


TOKYO — On May 1, Crown Prince Naruhito will succeed his father, Emperor Akihito, to become the 126th Japanese emperor. The April 1 announcement of the new imperial era's name, Reiwa, means Japan's history is turning a new page.

Born in 1960 as the eldest son of Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko, Crown Prince Naruhito was destined to be the heir apparent to the throne. Thus, the crown prince was raised with the "emperor's skills' from a very early age. His first teacher was his mother, Empress Michiko, who laid out a set of rules covering all aspects of the prince's daily life. Since the prince's childhood nickname was Naru, these rules were called the "Naru Law". Every morning the empress made sure that the little crown prince played alone on his bed for 30 minutes. The idea was that being the emperor is a lonely existence. The main purpose of this practice was to make independent thinking to become a habit. At mealtime, it was very important that Naru didn't have the illusion that food would just appear on the table like magic so that he would feel grateful towards the hardworking peasants.

As for clothing, little Naru hardly had any brand new clothes. His casual clothes were always his second cousin's hand-me-downs. Above all, the court attendant who was responsible for bringing up the Crown Prince till the age of 11 received the words of the "imperial edict" that the prince had to be strictly disciplined, and he could even be hit on the bottom if necessary.

Last autumn, Koyama Taisei, a good friend of Crown Prince Naruhito, published a book called "The New Emperor and the Japanese People". In the book, he describes the crown prince as a very ordinary but also as a very applied student. Before any exam, he would review all the work seriously. However, he did not set himself the goal of achieving the highest grades. In Koyama's view, was the Crown Prince not to take the throne, he could have been an ordinary and orderly office employee and a good team worker. In 1978, Naruhito entered Gakushuin University and studied history. His graduate thesis is titled "A Study of Seto Shipping in the Middle Ages in Japan." Between 1983 and 1985, he went to Oxford University, focusing on navigation and traffic on the Upper Thames in the 18th century. Unlike in Japan, his life during his studies in England was relatively free. In his memoir "The Thames and I – a Memoir of Two Years at Oxford", Naruhito recalled that on the second day after arriving in London, he attended the opening ceremony of the British Parliament. "I saw that the lower house closed the gate twice in front of the messenger sent by the Queen. It's not until the third time that the gate was completely opened. It is said that this is to demonstrate the ritual request of the Queen to ‘Visit the lower house three times'."

At the age of 28, Naruhito became the Crown Prince upon the death of his grandfather, Emperor Showa, and the succession of his father, the Emperor of Heisei. Before this date, the top secret procedure to select a Crown Princess had started. According to Taisei's book, the procedure lasted over ten years. In the residence of the imperial palace where the Crown Prince lived, arranged events or parties took place every week. Young ladies who attended these occasions were all candidates eyeing to become a member of the palace. It was Masako Owada who stood out finally. The daughter of Hisashi Owada, a senior diplomat and former president of the International Court of Justice, Masako herself was a professional diplomat. The future imperial couple met for the first time in 1986, during the visit to Japan of Infanta Elena, the Spanish princess. The imperial couple eventually married in 1993, but their relationship encountered quite a bit of suffering.

While the Crown princess yearned to push forward imperial diplomacy, the Imperial Household Agency, a governmental organ in charge of state matters concerning the Imperial Family, wanted her "to be prepared to become Empress, and to give an heir to the throne". Masako's frustration from this pressure resulted in her developing a mental disorder. Though the couple had a daughter in 2001, and they love her dearly, it's her uncle, Prince Akishino and his son, Prince Hisahito, who are the second and third-in-line to the throne. But hopefully, from May 1, the Japanese public will be ushering in a new emperor who'll undertake the imperial diplomacy which the new Empress Masako has so much longed for.

An old joke: the emperor is "the Japanese person whose human rights are abused most."

As an imperial member, Crown Prince Naruhito often shows up to comfort victims in places where disasters such as earthquakes have occurred. When these victims cannot speak due to their fear, the Crown Prince spends a long time having eye-to-eye contact with each one to show his sympathy. Another anecdote about him stems from an imperial wedding that took place last October. In the banquet, one of the guests was very drunk out of happiness. The staff around the Crown Prince thought his behavior indecent and asked if they should take him out of the party. Not only Naruhito didn't agree, he actually took a bottle of wine and walked to this guest to fill up his glass, and told him with a smile: "Please enjoy your drink and have fun before returning home." People present were all touched by his sincerity and kindness. I once asked the Crown Prince very directly: "What kind of life would you like to lead after your succession?" His answer was very simple: "I want to go to the mountains or to an island, and just talk face to face with people who live there."

However, according to Japan's Constitution, "Emperor is the symbol of the Japanese nation", and it clearly stipulates that "all acts of the Emperor concerning state affairs must come from the recommendation and recognition of the prime minister, and the prime minister will bear the responsibility." In brief, "The Emperor only exercises the relevant state affairs as stipulated in this Constitution and has no power in the state." Even the granting, receiving and endowing of imperial properties are all subject to the resolution of the parliament. As the symbol of Japanese national unity, the Emperor can't even publicly say that he is a "fan" of a star or athlete. And during the summer vacation, he can't go to Hawaii for a holiday. As it is often jokingly said, the Japanese emperor is "the Japanese person whose human rights are abused most."

As Japan ushers in a new emperor and a new era, it won't easily fix the issue of its aging population. But at least the new throne and symbol of the nation is 27 years younger.

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A Dove From Hiroshima: Is Fumio Kishida Tough Enough To Lead Japan?

Japan's new prime minister is facing the twin challenges of COVID-19 and regional tensions, and some wonder whether he can even last as long as his predecessor, who was forced out after barely one year.

Japan's new PM Fumio Kishida in Tokyo on Sept. 29

Daisuke Kondo


TOKYO — When Fumio Kishida, Japan's new prime minister. introduced himself earlier this month, he announced that the three major projects of his premiership will be the control of the ongoing pandemic; a new type of capitalism; and national security.

Kishida also pledged to deal with China "as its neighbor, biggest trade partner and an important nation which Japan should continue to dialogue with."

Nothing too surprising. Still, it was a rapid turn of events that brought him to the top job, taking over for highly unpopular predecessor, Yoshihide Suga, who had suddenly announced his resignation from office.

After a fierce race, Kishida defeated Taro Kono to become the president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), and pave the way for the prime minister's job.

Born into politics

A key reason for Kishida's victory is the improving health situation, following Japan's fifth wave of the COVID pandemic that coincided with this summer's Olympic Games in Tokyo.

The best way to describe Kishida is to compare him to a sponge: not the most interesting item in a kitchen, yet it can absorb problems and clean up muck. His slogan ("Leaders exist to make other people shine") reflects well his political philosophy.

He is an excellent actor.

Kishida was born into a political family: His grandfather and father were both parliament members. Between the ages of six to nine, he studied in New York because of his father's work at the time. He attended the most prestigious private secondary school — the Kaisei Academy, of which about half of its graduates go to the University of Tokyo.

However, after failing three times the entrance exam to , Kishida finally settled for Waseda University. Coming from a family where virtually all the men went to UTokyo, this was Kishida's first great failure in life.

An invitation for Obama

After he graduated from college, Kishida worked for five years in a bank before serving as secretary for his father, Fumitake Kishida. In 1992, his father suddenly died at the age of 65. The following year, Kishida inherited his father's legacy to be elected as a member of the House of Representatives for the Hiroshima constituency. Since then, he has been elected successfully nine straight times, and served as Shinzo Abe's foreign minister for four years, beginning in December 2012. A former subordinate of his from that time commented on Kishida:

"If we are to sum him up in one sentence, he is an excellent actor. Whenever he was meeting his peers from other countries, we would remind him what should be emphasized, or when a firm, unyielding 'No' was necessary, and so on ... At the meetings, he would then put on his best show, just like an actor."

According to some insiders, during this period as foreign minister, his toughest stance was on nuclear weapons. This is due to the fact that his family hails from Hiroshima.

In 2016, following his suggestion, the G7 Ise-Shima Summit was held in Hiroshima, which meant that President Barack Obama visited the city — the first visit by a U.S. president to Hiroshima, where 118,661 lives were annihilated by the U.S. atomic bomb.

Photo of Shinzo Abe, Barack Obama and Fumio Kishida with their backs to the camera, in Hiroshima in 2016

Shinzo Abe, Barack Obama and Fumio Kishida in Hiroshima in 2016

Japanese cynics

In September, 2020 when Shinzo Abe stepped down as prime minister, Kishida put out his candidacy for the first time for LDP's presidency. He didn't even get close. This was his second great failure.

But reading his biography, Kishida Vision, I must say that besides the two aforementioned hiccups, Kishida's life has been smooth sailing over the past 64 years

When one has had a happy and easy life, one tends to think that human nature is fundamentally good. Yet, the world doesn't work like that. And Japanese tend to believe that "human nature is vice," and have always felt a bit uneasy with the dovish Kishida diplomacy when he was foreign minister.

Leftist traditions from Hiroshima

Hiroshima has always been a city with a leftist political tradition. Kishida's character, coupled with the fact that he belongs to the moderate Kochikai faction within the LDP, inevitably means that he won't be a right-wing prime minister.

How long will a Fumio Kishida government last?

Kishida would never have the courage to be engaged in any military action alongside Japan's ally, the United States, nor will he set off to rewrite the country's constitution.

So after barely a year of Yoshihide Suga in office, how long will a Fumio Kishida government last? If Japan can maintain its relatively stable health situation for some time, it could be a while. But if COVID comes roaring back, and the winter brings a sixth wave of the pandemic as virtually all Japanese experts in infectious diseases have predicted, then Kishida may just end up like Suga. No sponge can clean up that mess.

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