Akihito: The Son Also Rises

  • He is a slight, unprepossessing figure who has passed most of his life puttering contentedly beyond the reach of history's spotlight. His time has < been spent writing monographs on the goby (a spiny-finned fish of the Gobiidae family), playing the cello and raising his two sons and one daughter. His official duties have kept him fitfully in the public eye but not in the popular imagination. As Crown Prince Akihito ascends Japan's Chrysanthemum Throne, he remains a mystery to his countrymen and a cipher to the world.

    Akihito was born on Dec. 23, 1933, the long-awaited first son of Hirohito and Empress Nagako, who had already produced four girls. In time-honored imperial fashion, the prince was separated from his parents at about the age of three and raised by nurses, tutors and chamberlains. Yet in a departure from custom, at six Akihito was sent to school with commoners in order to broaden him. When the Allies began closing in on Japan during World War II, he and some of his classmates were evacuated to provincial cities.

    The Crown Prince showed his mettle in 1959 when he chose for his bride Michiko Shoda, the first nonaristocrat elevated to royal consort. Apprehensive about becoming a member of the royal family, she was at first reluctant to accept Akihito's proposal, but his passionate wooing won her over. They were married amid nationwide celebration.

    The couple set up house in the Togu Gosho, the Crown Prince's unpretentious residence half a mile from the Imperial Palace. But reports soon filtered out that Empress Nagako resented the intrusion of a commoner into the family. The situation was exacerbated when, in another break with tradition, Akihito and Michiko chose to raise their children -- Prince Hiro, now 28, Prince Aya, 23, and Princess Nori, 19 -- at home. In 1986 they stepped further into workaday modernity when they took their first subway ride.

    As Crown Prince, Akihito began his workday at 10 a.m., planning public appearances and receiving visitors. Later the family would gather in the palace sitting room for tea and cake -- and for Prince Hiro, perhaps a slug of whiskey, which he learned to savor during two years at Oxford's Merton College. The eligible Prince Hiro, an aspiring historian, overshadows his father in the public mind because Japanese newspapers have unleashed squads of reporters to cover the big story: whom he will marry and when.

    Like Hirohito, who was an avid amateur marine biologist, Akihito became an expert on fish. He is also a dedicated musician, and the palace often resounds with impromptu concerts of Mozart, Grieg or Beethoven; Akihito is a fine cellist and is joined by his wife playing the harp, Hiro on viola, Aya on the guitar and Nori at the piano. Says chief chamberlain Yasuo Shigeta: "This is a family so full of sweet music."

    For all his majesty, Akihito has never projected a clear public image. "His great natural dignity is combined with a shyness which sometimes seems like hauteur; and the ability to suffer fools gladly, which is so great an asset to any public figure, is apparently missing," wrote Elizabeth Gray Vining in her 1952 book Windows for the Crown Prince. Vining, a Philadelphia Quaker, tutored the Crown Prince in English during the late 1940s, but her description still seems valid: "He has a better than average mind, clear, analytical, independent, with a turn for original thought. He is aware of his destiny; he accepts it soberly." Now, nearly four decades later, Akihito and his destiny have finally come together.