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Crown Prince Opens Curtain To Japan’s Monarchy With PM-Hirohito

September 23, 1988

TOKYO (AP) _ Akihito, the quiet, dapper prince who is assuming his ailing father’s duties, has gently parted the inscrutable veil that once shrouded Japan’s monarchy.

The eldest son of the reclusive Emperor Hirohito is a globe-trotting diplomat without portfolio, a weekend tennis player whose youthful driver’s license identified him simply as ″Akihito Shinno″ - Prince Akihito.

″People still stand in awe of the emperor, but there is a real sense of intimacy with the crown prince and princess,″ said Yasuo Shigeta, Akihito’s longtime chamberlain.

The 54-year-old prince is the first monarch schooled among commoners and will be the first to ascend the Chrysanthemum Throne as a human and not a living god.

On his own, Akihito has set a number of other imperial precedents: first to court and marry a commoner, first to raise his own children, first to throw out the first ball at a baseball game, first to actively shoulder the extensive globe-trotting duties of an increasingly outward-looking Japan.

″I want to be a man with a strong moral backbone with keen, reliable insight and knowledge,″ a friend quoted him as saying. ″I want to shake up the imperial protocol system.″

He did just that with his marriage in 1959 to Michiko Shoda, the beautiful, cultured daughter of a wealthy miller. The prince courted her by phone, in long conversations that piqued the curiosity of a public once excluded from imperial life. Their wedding cavalcade drew half a million well-wishers onto the streets of Tokyo.

Akihito and Michiko have three children - Prince Hiro, 28; Prince Aya, 22; and Princess Nori, 19.

The prince’s style is different from that of his father, a frail, stooped man who made his obligatory public appearances but never seemed comfortable at them. Hirohito’s Showa reign - the ″era of enlightenment and peace″ - began with his enthronement as a living god on Christmas Day 1926.

Akihito, born Dec. 23, 1933, was a boy when Japan’s most ambitious military campaign of the century ended in disaster in 1945. Japan was shattered, its cities firebombed and its people starving when Hirohito went on the radio to tell a stunned nation it had to accept surrender.

At the urging of U.S. Occupation authorities, Hirohito renounced his divinity on New Year’s Day 1946 and accepted a new constitutional role as ″the symbol of the state and of the unity of the people, deriving his position from the will of the people.″

It was the 12-year-old prince’s new legacy. ″The imperial family should always be passive,″ he would say later. ″The most important thing is the will of the people.″

Akihito was formally invested as crown prince in 1952, and the next year he began a six-month tour of Europe and America by representing his father at the coronation of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II.

His education included precedent-setting attendance at ordinary schools and Gakushin University as well as tutoring in English, European languages, law and history. Like his marine biologist father, science is a major hobby and he has delivered scientific papers on the goby fish, a mudsucker.

The graying, 5-foot-5 prince appears often among his subjects at ceremonies and festivals, smiling, nodding politely, delivering carefully tailored speeches in a measured, high-pitched lisp.

Akihito has spent 54 years preparing for his reign. Its name, to be chosen by government officials, is a closely kept secret. For many Japanese it will be the symbolic start of a modern era, free of the fetters of war memories that plagued Hirohito.

His son has also tasted the bitterness of survivors who fought a hopeless war in the name of the emperor. In Okinawa, site of the Pacific War’s fiercest fighting between Japanese and American troops, 1,600 people turned out to demonstrate last year against Hirohito’s first scheduled visit to the island.

Instead, Akihito read a statement on behalf of his father.

″I feel great sadness and pain when I think of how Okinawa suffered tremendous damage in the war ... produced a large number of honorable victims, including ordinary residents, and was forced to suffer numerous hardships for a long time after the war,″ he read.

Some leftists, religious groups and war victims continue to oppose the existence of the Japanese monarchy. For Akihito it has never been a question of choice.

Asked once by his American Quaker schoolteacher, the late Elizabeth Vining, what he would be when he grew up, the boy prince replied, ″I will become emperor.″

Last year, at a rare reception with American journalists, he confided, ″I don’t think I have ever considered what I would wish to do, as I don’t have the experiences of a regular Japanese citizen and I can’t imagine being able to choose another way of life.″

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