Emperor Akihito, the 125th incumbent of the Chrysanthemum Throne, traces his ancestry back to 660 BC and Emperor Jimmu, great-great-grandson of the mythological Sun Goddess Amaterasu. Most scholars, however, acknowledge that the first emperor for whom there is any historical evidence is the fifth-century Emperor Ojin.

Until the twentieth century, emperors were regarded as living deities whom ordinary folk were forbidden to set eyes on, or even hear. Japan’s defeat in World War II ended all that, and today the emperor is a symbolic figure, a head of state with no governmental power. While he was crown prince, Emperor Akihito had an American tutor and studied at Tokyo’s elite Gakushūin University, followed by a stint at Oxford University. In 1959 he broke further with tradition by marrying a commoner, Shōda Michiko.

Following in his father’s footsteps, Crown Prince Naruhito married a high-flying Harvard-educated diplomat Owada Masako in 1993. The intense press scrutiny that the couple came under when they failed to produce a male heir (current laws prohibit a female succession) has been sited as one of reasons for the princess’s miscarriage in 1999. Two years later the crown princess gave birth to a baby girl, Aiko, but the mother has barely been seen in public since, suffering from a variety of stress-related illnesses. One piece of good news for the royal succession is that Princess Kiko, wife of Naruhito’s younger brother, gave birth to Hisahito in 2006 – the young prince is third in line for the throne after his uncle and father.

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