Born on 23 December 1933, Prince Akihito was born in the Imperial Palace of Tokyo as the elder son and fifth child of Emperor Hirohito and Empress Nagako. He had five older sisters: Shigeko, Princess Teru (1925-1961); Sachiko, Princess Hisa (1927-1928); Kazuko, Princess Taka (1929-1989); and Atsuko, Princess Yori (b. 1931). They were later joined by two more siblings: Masahito, Prince Hitachi and Takako (b. 1935), Princess Suga (b. 1939).
The Prince, who held the personal title “Prince Tsugu” as a young member of the Imperial Family, was privately educated by tutors like most royals of his generation. However, he also attended the Peers’ School’s elementary and secondary departments. Akihito later would study political science at Gakushuin University but did not graduate.
His childhood was interrupted by the Second World War which forced him and his younger brother to be evacuated out of Tokyo during the American bombings of the city. Once the Americans defeated the Japanese and occupied the country, Akihito was educated in English and Western customs.
On 10 November 1952, he was invested as the Crown Prince of Japan – just a month before turning 19. The following year, he represented his father as Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation.
Akihito would meet the love of his life in August of 1957 on a tennis court. The woman was the Catholic commoner Michiko Shoda who was deemed beneath Japan’s future ruler; however, this did not stop Akihito. Distance would also not halt the relationship when she was sent to Brussels to attend a conference in 1958. The Crown Prince sent messages through King Baudouin of the Belgians to his girlfriend; the King would become a valuable friend for Akihito and advocated for the marriage between Akihito and Michiko.
The couple’s engagement was approved on 27 November 1958 by the Imperial Household Agency with the media calling it a fairytale. The engagement ceremony took place on 14 January 1959, and they married on 10 April 1959 with Michiko becoming the first commoner to marry into the Imperial Family.
Their marriage has been a happy one, producing three children: Crown Prince Naruhito (soon to be Emperor b. 1960), Fumihito, Prince Akishino (b. 1965), and Sayako Kuroda (formerly Sayako, Princess Nori b. 1969).
When his father died on 7 January 1989, Akihito became Emperor promising to bring the Imperial Family closer to the Japanese people, something he would succeed in during his 30-year reign. Akihito’s enthronement ceremony took place on 12 November 1990.
His reign saw tragedy with one of the most memorable being a 2011 earthquake and tsunami that hi Tōhoku causing widespread devastation. He and the Empress made sure to visit the evacuees and others impacted by the event. That same year the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster took place with His Imperial Majesty making a rare television appearance to call on the Japanese people to support each other and stay strong.
As he aged, health problems began to arise, and in 2003, he underwent surgery for prostate cancer. In 2011, he was admitted to the hospital for pneumonia and had a coronary examination the following year which led to a heart bypass surgery in February 2012. His health problems would be linked to his abdication announcement in 2016.
Rumours began circulating in the Japanese media in early 2016 that the Emperor wanted to abdicate, but the Imperial Household denied the reports. Nevertheless, on 8 August 2016 Emperor Akihito announced his intent to relinquish in a televised address making him the first Emperor to abdicate in over 200 years. The Japanese government passed a one-off bill allowing Akihito to abdicate in June 2017, and in December of that year, they announced his abdication date as 30 April 2019.
Emperor Akihito’s reign and legacy will, no doubt, be praised for years to come. He succeeded in bringing the Japanese people and the Imperial Family closer. He and the Empress visited all 47 prefectures of Japan throughout his reign and 18 countries.
After his abdication on 30 April, he will be known as Emperor Emeritus or “Jōkō.”