TOKYO – Japanese Emperor Akihito's video message this week, though subtle, suggested that he wishes to abdicate, and the attention now goes to his elder son, the first in line to Japan's Chrysanthemum throne.
In his 10-minute recorded message Monday, Akihito primarily cited his old age and concerns that it may become difficult for him to fulfill his duties, but some palace watchers say a hidden reason for his desired abdication might be his successor.
Like his father, the son, Naruhito, is a soft-spoken and smiley man. A bit stocky at age 56, he's married to a Harvard-educated former diplomat, Masako, who has been ill for more than a decade and seldom appears in public. But she is better known abroad and his presence is often eclipsed whenever she comes out.
Having a father who has tried to break down Japan's ancient imperial traditions to bring his cloistered family closer to the nation, Naruhito was raised as a new breed of royals who grew up in a family seen as a model for the nation. His name in Chinese character means a person with heavenly virtues.
His mother, Michiko, the first commoner to become empress, helped to bring in fresh changes to the palace in child-rearing and education. The couple eliminated a wet nurse for Naruhito, born Feb. 23, 1960, and his two younger siblings. When they went on official trips and left Naruhito behind, they handed his nannies a list of rules for the then-prince in what was known as a "Naru-chan Kempo," or "Constitution."
Naruhito attended Gakushuin, a private school for former aristocrats. After graduating from college, he studied at Oxford University, living in a dorm for two years for the first time while earning a master's degree in Thames River water transport systems.
An avid hiker, skier and viola player, Naruhito first met Harvard-educated diplomat Masako Owada at a party in 1986, but it took him eight years of waiting and two rejections before he won her heart in what is remembered as a modern-day royal romance.
Their marriage raised expectations of adding a modern face to imperial institutions, but Masako is still recovering from stress-induced mental conditions she developed after giving birth to their daughter, following criticism that she had failed to produce a boy.
The succession law allows only male emperors, so Naruhito's only child, Aiko, 14, cannot inherit. Instead, Naruhito's younger brother Akishino, 50, is second in line, and his son Hisahito, 9, is third. Discussions on changing the law to allow female succession ended with the boy's birth.
For more than a decade, Naruhito has mostly traveled alone while performing his traditional duties, unlike his father, who is almost always with his wife by his side. This raises a question as to whether Masako can do even part of the work Michiko has done as empress.
Palace watchers and experts say Akihito wants to abdicate possibly to help smooth the transition, rather than waiting until the last minute to burden his son with such a heavy immediate responsibility.
Naruhito would be the 126th emperor in a line believed to date to the fifth century.
The emperor is a purely symbolic figure today, with no political power. Akihito is known as a strong proponent of Japan's war-renouncing constitution, repeatedly showing support for the charter, which stipulates his symbol status.
"(Akihito) reflects obviously the mistakes and the errors made earlier on in his father's (Hirohito's) reign," said Robert Campbell, a University of Tokyo professor who is an expert of Japanese history and culture. "That's something I think everyone hopes will be carried on into his son's reign."
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