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

-Analysis-

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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