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A Timeline of Emperor Akihito’s Reign of Japan

Japan's Emperor Akihito has stepped down. Here we look back at his reign over the Heisei era.

By 10 min read

Emperor Akihito’s reign has come to an abrupt and unusual end, signaling the start of a new era and even the possibility for major constitutional change.

Having reigned for thirty years during the nation’s current Heisei Era (1989-2019), at 85 years old Akihito is still kicking as the 125th ruling member of the world’s longest continuous imperial line. Though records of some of the earliest emperors are shrouded in myth, Emperor Akihito can trace his royal lineage back 2,600 years.

On August 7, 2016, in a rare televised appearance, the emperor publicly stated concerns about his failing health, implying that he wanted to resign. The broadcast stunned the nation, as technically Japanese emperors aren’t allowed to abdicate. Nor do they have the political power to alter the constitution to give themselves permission to do so. The address seemed to be a plea to anyone who could intervene: “Get me outta here!”

Luckily for the aging ruler in December of that same year, after months of deliberation, the Japanese government decided to allow the emperor to step down—just this once. Yet, because this is such an unprecedented event in modern times, it’s taken over two years of planning and discussion since then for the big day to finally come. Elaborate banquets and ceremonies have been planned, new public holidays created, and the next era name decided.

On the first day of a new era in Japan, let’s take a look at the incredible thirty-year legacy of Emperor Akihito.

1933 to 1945: Born on the eve of war

The emperor was born Prince Tsugu Akihito at Tokyo’s Imperial Palace on December 23, 1933. His birth was greeted with immense joy as he was the first boy born to his parents after many attempts to produce a male heir (he has four older sisters).

Only two years before Akihito’s birth, Japan invaded Manchuria. Throughout the 1930s Imperialist Japan was building an empire that had already annexed Korea and Taiwan and would later include parts of China. These actions would culminate during World War II, which Japan participated in from 1941 until 1945.

During the firebombing raids of Tokyo in 1945, Akihito was evacuated to a remote rural location. In 1999, ten years after becoming emperor, Akihito told the public, “My childhood memories begin in 1937 when I was three years old… and the war continued from then until August 1945. Thus, as I grew up, there was not a time without war.”

1945: His father surrenders

Akihito was 11 years old when he listened to his father, Emperor Hirohito, announcing Japan’s surrender on the radio on August 15, 1945. He’d grown up, like much of the rest of Japan, revering Hirohito; a leader born from a legendary bloodline that began with Emperor Jimmu, Japan’s first emperor, who was said to be descended from Amaterasu, the sun goddess and mythical mother of Japan.

After Japan’s surrender, Emperor Hirohito was forced by the American military high command to publicly admit he did not possess divine powers. However, he continued to reign as emperor until his death in 1989.

Unlike many he commanded, Hirohito was not charged for war crimes — the occupying US powers led by General Douglas MacArthur spun a narrative absolving him of any blame. Debate continues around the emperor’s complicity in the acts of World War II. Some suggest the shy figure passively acquiesced to decisions made by militaristic politicians, while critics claim his role was much more ambitious and direct. Only a few of his personal diary entries revealed after his death suggest that he may have felt responsibility and remorse.

1945 to 1952: Lessons in occupation

Akihito was raised in the confines of the Imperial Palace. He studied at Gakushuin, the nobility’s private school, where many of his imperial predecessors, as well as Japanese artists like Yoko Ono and Hayao Miyazaki, also attended. He received a typical Japanese education in addition to tutoring in specialized subjects like Constitutional Law and Japanese History. During the American occupation, he was taught English as well as Western manners and customs by British author Elizabeth Gray Vining.

Akihito became the heir apparent as soon as he was born, but officially gained the title of Crown Prince during a 1952 ceremony. When he became Crown Prince, Akihito became the first future emperor in the Imperial Family’s 2,600-year history not ideologically perceived as “divine.”

Due to the private nature of the Imperial Family, it’s unknown how exactly Akihito felt about this. However, the fact that he has long preached for peace and done his part to express remorse to nations and individuals negatively affected by the war has been interpreted by some as an attempt to separate his legacy from that of his father.

1952 to 1959: Courtside romance

As Crown Prince, Akihito dived into his duties as a diplomat, traveling around the world in an attempt to strengthen ties with former rival nations.

In 1953, when he was in his early twenties, he embarked on a six-month tour that included the United States, West Germany, and Canada. During his trip, he visited England to attend Queen Elizabeth’s coronation. He shared wine with the Prime Minister of England, personally greeted people in the freezing Canada cold, and played table tennis with passengers aboard a ship across the Pacific. All these actions not only endeared the Crown Prince to those he came across, but it also promoted peaceful relations with countries Japan had been at war with less than a decade earlier.

The Crown Prince and Princess on their wedding day with Emperor Showa and Empress Kojun.

Akihito’s influential global visits continued with the help of his wife, Michiko, whom he met during a 1957 tennis tournament when she defeated him in a team match. This meeting, dubbed “テニスコートのロマンス” or “romance of the tennis court” was widely publicized and romanticized at the time. Their engagement even triggered a national craze for the sport.

The couple married in 1959. It was the first time a royal family member had married a non-royal in history. Although, as the daughter of a highly regarded and wealthy businessman, Michiko was no stranger to privilege. Her distinguished background, as well as her roles as her high school’s class president and valedictorian, helped gain her the approval of the Imperial Family and the public.

By this time, cities had been rebuilt and the Western powers made into allies. Japan found its footing as an electronics manufacturing powerhouse, exporting consumer appliances and electronics at a rapid rate.

1959 to 1989: Modern Family

In the first years of their marriage, Crown Prince and Princess Akihito and Michiko established diplomatic relations with many developed and developing countries, aided disenfranchised populations in Japan, and created the Crown Prince Akihito Scholarship, a sponsored exchange program allowing Japanese and Hawaiian university students to experience each other’s cultures. They traveled to more countries than any of their predecessors. This was partially due to increasing globalization and international relations, but also due to the couple’s desire to make peace with other nations.

On a trip to the US in 1987.

At home, they often visited welfare facilities for children, the elderly, or the disabled, expressing genuine interest and concern for groups often marginalized by Japanese society. Their endeavors caused them to become popular worldwide. In this sense, they became Japan’s first “modern” royal family.

Together Michiko and Akihito have three children—Sayako, Fumihito, and Crown Prince Naruhito, the 59-year-old who has now taken his spot on the Chrysanthemum Throne.

From 1989: The Lost Decade

Hirohito died of cancer on January 7, 1989. Details of his ailment weren’t made public until his passing, though he had been bedridden for months. Upon his death, he became both the longest-living and longest-reigning Japanese emperor, as well as the longest-reigning monarch in the world.

The nation honored his passing with a six-day mourning period. In Tokyo, citizens hung flags outside their homes and storefronts, radio stations played classical music, and crowds gathered outside the Imperial Palace.

Akihito became Emperor of Japan the very next day. Upon Akihito’s ascension, a new era in Japanese history began. Hirohito’s passing signaled the end of the Showa Era (1926-1989) and the start of Heisei meaning “peace everywhere.”

The 80s was a time of surging economic prosperity in Japan, now known more for Nintendo and Sony than for its defeat during the war. However, 1989 marked the final year of rapid post-war growth. That year, the stock market crashed, causing the real estate bubble to collapse and resulting in years of economic stagnation known as the “Lost Decade,” or more recently the “Lost Score.”

Akihito’s coronation ceremony occurred the same year as the crash and featured scores of lavish events over several months climaxing with a 1990 enthronement ceremony that lasted 30 minutes and cost an equivalent of $80 million. Unsurprisingly, the whole affair was widely criticized by the public for being too extravagant. For Naruhito, his ceremony in October is planned to be much more subdued.

The 2000s: In pursuit of peace

As a figurehead, Akihito has expressed sympathy and remorse towards countries that were attacked and invaded under his father’s rule during WWII, making several pilgrimages to Okinawa in southern Japan where hundreds of thousands of soldiers and civilians perished during land battles. The islands still remain the location of most of Japan’s contentious American military bases.

While on a visit to Okinawa, Akihito once remarked, “When I think of the great suffering undergone by the prefecture both during and after the war, I feel great sadness and pain.”

In addition to remembering Japanese casualties of war, he has prayed for Korean laborers and American soldiers at memorial events. He and Empress Michiko also provided disaster assistance after the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, the worst natural disaster in modern Japanese history. In an unprecedented move after the disaster, the Emperor appeared in a live televised address urging the Japanese people to help the victims and not to give up hope.

“I think he has learned how to put himself into other people’s shoes, and that’s where his activities as emperor, such as his trips to pray for the war dead and visits to disaster victims, are coming from,” Kazuo Oda, a longtime tennis partner of the emperor’s, said of Akihito in an interview with The Associated Press.

Emperor Akihito has regularly done his best to connect to the people of Japan rather than remaining holed up in his palace and aloof to what’s going on in the real world—he once compared imperial life to that of a “robot.” He has now been to all 47 of Japan’s prefectures, making a point to speak with everyday people he meets on his visits.

Outside his official duties, Akihito possesses a deep love for science and the arts. He has an interest in ichthyology and has published many articles on the science of fish, mainly gobies, in scholarly journals. A species of goby fish, Exyrias akihito, is even named in his honor. He plays the cello and composes waka, a form of traditional poetry, with his wife.

On rare occasions when they have free time, Akihito and his wife still play tennis together.

What’s next for the Imperial Family?

The Imperial Family in 2013. The new Emperor Naruhito is on the left, next to his father.

As its name predicted, the Heisei Era was a time of peace in Japan—at least as far as military exploits. It did, however, see intense periods of social change and economic upheaval. It also produced what many view as a rift between Japan’s current nationalistic-leaning government led by Shinzo Abe and the emperor’s more internationalistic and peace-keeping proclivities.

Japan faces a number of unresolved challenges that will be passed on to the Reiwa — meaning “beautiful harmony” — era. The aging population, gender discrimination, and the continuing debate on whether or not Japan should remilitarize are all pressing issues.

Crown Prince Naruhito ascends the throne today. Like his father, Naruhito is well traveled and has many scholarly interests, especially concerning the environment. He’s also thought to be much less nationalistic than his political contemporaries. Yet, with only a few possible heirs behind Naruhito, Japan’s royal lineage is in crisis. Perhaps this shortage will lead to progressive reforms, like allowing women to ascend the throne, or maybe this signals the inevitable end of the royal family altogether.

Though obsolete, it would certainly be tragic—and transformative—for the Imperial Family to diminish after almost three millennia in power, ending the longest hereditary monarchy in history.

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