For many Japanese, the sense of responsibility the emperor has for his subjects and others who have felt the tragedy of natural disasters and conflicts can best be summed up in two images.

The first was taken amid hastily assembled cardboard partitions in a school gymnasium in Tohoku after the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami devastated much of northeast Japan. Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko were both on their knees talking face-to-face with a survivor whose home, livelihood and neighbours had been swept away. Never before had an emperor been seen on his knees speaking with one of his subjects.

Less than four years later, the emperor and empress were pictured with their heads bowed, this time in front of a memorial to the Japanese and US troops who died on the island of Koror 70 years earlier. Some 16,000 Japanese and more than 2,000 US troops died in the fighting, one of the bloodiest battles of the Pacific war.

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As the nation counts down to the emperor’s abdication early next year – the first in Japan since 1817 – there is a growing recognition he has been a firm hand on the tiller of an institution that endured some difficult decades after the end of the second world war. He has done what was possible within his ceremonial role to express regret for imperial Japan’s abuses in Asia.

“It was a very difficult time, immediately after the end of the war, and I believe the emperor’s sense of responsibility and even guilt is rooted in that time,” said Mieko Nakabayashi, a social sciences professor at Waseda University in Tokyo.

“I believe the emperor to be a fairly liberal individual, in part because of the regret he feels for those who died in the war, and that he has tried hard throughout his reign to heal some of the differences.

“The official visit to Koror demonstrated his true feelings and what I think was a real desire to pass on those same feelings and sense of responsibility to the next generation of Japanese and the next generation of the imperial family.”

Modest, frugal and liberal

Japan’s 1947 constitution effectively relegated the emperor to a figurehead – a far cry from the role Emperor Hirohito played during the war – barred from making political decisions. Yet the emperor has managed on several occasions to demonstrate his liberal credentials without being seen to interfere in elected officials’ deliberations.

In May 2017, for example, he was able to convey his displeasure when a conservative politician debating the question of whether he should be permitted to abdicate said the emperor “should just perform imperial rituals”. Citing “sources close to the emperor,” the media reported he had been “shocked” and “deeply displeased” by the comments.

Born at the Tokyo Imperial Palace in December 1933, the emperor assumed the Chrysanthemum Throne after the death of his father, posthumously known as Emperor Showa, on January 7, 1989. According to Japanese legend, he is the 125th ruler in the world’s oldest continuous hereditary monarchy, which traces its history back to the accession of Emperor Jimmu in 660BC.

Akihito married Michiko Shoda, a commoner he met on a tennis court, in April 1959. They raised two sons, Crown Prince Naruhito, who will inherit the Chrysanthemum Throne, and Prince Akishino, as well as a daughter, Princess Sayako.

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Early on in his official duties, even before he became emperor, Akihito compared the role of Japanese royalty to that of a robot and said he wanted to bring the imperial family closer to the ordinary people of Japan. While the stiff and prim Imperial Household Agency may have thwarted that to a degree, he did go some way to making the family seem less like gods, as they were traditionally portrayed.

“The Japanese people have a very positive image of the emperor because he has chosen to lead a modest and frugal life,” Nakabayashi said. “He has expressed concern about the imperial family’s budget and insisted on a lifestyle that is not wasteful.”

The Japanese people have a very positive image of the emperor because he has chosen to lead a modest and frugal life
Professor Mieko Nakabayashi

That wish was reflected in the decision to cut back on the number of banquets held to mark his abdication and the ascension of his son. In 1989, there were seven banquets over four days with about 3,400 guests to mark Akihito’s ascension to the throne. This time, there will be four banquets later in the year.

Similarly, the emperor expressed his wish in 2012 to be cremated in a relatively cut-price funeral after his death, breaking with 350 years of tradition. The emperor and empress informed the Imperial Household Agency their decision was intended to “minimise the impact on the lives of the citizens”. Emperor Showa’s mausoleum cost 2.6 billion yen (US$23 million) when it was erected in 1989.

Divided over the monarchy

There are growing factions in Japan – just as in other countries with hereditary monarchies – insisting the role of emperor is an anachronism that has no place in a modern society.

A group of about 120 people has filed a lawsuit at the Tokyo District Court demanding the government not use taxpayers’ funds to cover the considerable costs associated with the rituals surrounding the enthronement of a new emperor, set to take place in April next year.

The group includes Buddhist monks and members of Christian groups opposed to the use of public funds for what they regard as religious ceremonies. They say this is a violation of the separation of church and state, as decreed in the constitution.

They have nothing to do with my life – they mean nothing to me
Issei Izawa, university student

Similar suits were filed when the current emperor was enthroned in 1990 and it is likely others will be filed before the year is over, although all previous legal challenges have been dismissed by the courts.

Aside from the legal challenges, there are some Japanese who simply feel the imperial family is too disconnected from ordinary life and accuse them of using funds that might be better spent elsewhere.

“They have nothing to do with my life – they mean nothing to me and they cost the nation a huge amount of money every year,” said Issei Izawa, a 19-year-old university student from Tokyo. “I do not see the point in having an imperial family. In the past, they had influence and power and were probably quite important in uniting the nation, but this is the 21st century and Japan has moved on from then. And if they are just symbolic, then why are they so expensive?”

Some question why the Japanese royal family is not more like monarchies in other countries, such as the Netherlands, where Queen Maxima can occasionally be seen cycling through Amsterdam on a personal errand.

To many Japanese, however, it would be unthinkable for the emperor to pop to the shops on a bicycle.

“The imperial family has dignity and we have this sense that they are almost like the wise parents to the extended Japanese people,” said Tomoko Ooko, a 66-year-old housewife from Saitama Prefecture, north of Tokyo.

“I have heard some people say that [the emperor] has an easy life and all he does is go to places, wave and meet people, but I think that must be very stressful. He is constantly in the public eye and everything he does and says is reported in the media, he has no free time and no days off – and he does not get much thanks for all that he does.”

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Now 84, the emperor has visibly slowed down in recent years. He underwent an operation for prostate cancer in 2003 and was hospitalised again in late 2008 with chest pains, an irregular pulse, high blood pressure and internal bleeding. His doctor blamed the emperor’s ill health on stress in part brought on by questions over the future of the imperial family. He was hospitalised again in 2012 for coronary artery bypass surgery.

The emperor’s fading health is believed to have been the reason for his abdication in favour of his son, who royal-watchers believe has learned the skills necessary to be a responsible and caring leader.

In mid-November, Crown Prince Naruhito was spotted jogging in the grounds of the Akasaka Estate in central Tokyo, acting as the sighted guide for a partially sighted runner who won a silver medal at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Paralympic Games. The prince first met Misato Michishita at a garden party in November last year and offered to be her sighted guide on a run. Michishita has apparently told the prince she will win gold when Tokyo hosts the Paralympic Games in 2020, an event that will be one of Naruhito’s first major occasions as emperor.

Ooko said: “I think that it’s good [the emperor] is abdicating so he can relax a little bit for the rest of his life and I think that his son will have learned from his father. I think he will do a good job of taking the role of emperor forward.”