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Thereis nothing palatial about the Imperial Palace in Tokyo. It’s a park, a shaggy forest of ponds and trees, with a handful of modestly elegant modern buildings, an administrative block and a few roads faintly visible in between. There used to be a nine-hole golf course, built in the 1920s by the then crown prince, Hirohito, who took to the game during a visit to Britain. But years later – so the story goes – he spotted a rare flower growing there and decreed that the links should be allowed to return to their natural state. The palace grounds occupy 280 acres at the centre of the largest city in history. Even after three decades of economic stagnation, this is among the most valuable pieces of real estate in the world; at the peak of Japan’s boom in the 1980s, it was said that the site was worth as much as the entire state of California.

The comparison is meaningless, of course, because the land can never be sold, developed or, by most people, even walked on. It is tempting to see in this priceless nothingness an image of its inhabitant. The Imperial Palace is a space, rather than a place, just as Japan’s emperor is, in constitutional terms, the symbol of the state, though deprived of his prewar divinity and power. Like him, the palace grounds exert a power far beyond their functional insignificance, emitting a forcefield that moves invisibly through the city around them. But functional insignificance doesn’t mean absolute insignificance. From the imperial centre a whorl of moats and canals, partially filled in but still obvious on a map, spiral outwards to connect with the Sumida River. At a further remove is the circling Yamanote railway line. Aircraft flight paths, subway lines and expressways are all carefully routed to avoid encroaching on, above or below the palace grounds.

‘The city I am talking about (Tokyo) offers this precious paradox,’ Roland Barthes wrote in 1970.

It does possess a centre, but this centre is empty. The entire city turns around a site both forbidden and indifferent … One of the two most powerful cities of modernity is thereby built around an opaque ring of walls, streams, roofs and trees whose own centre is no more than an evaporated notion, subsisting here, not in order to irradiate power, but to give to the entire urban movement the support of its central emptiness.

Eleven months ago, the principal denizen of the emptiness changed. The last time this happened was in 1989 following the death of Hirohito, whose status as wartime emperor made him an object of resentment overseas and muted unease at home (Japanese radicals marked the succession by firing homemade rockets into the palace grounds, where they landed harmlessly among the squirrels and crows). Last year’s accession ceremonies for the new emperor, Naruhito, by contrast, took place without incident; polls put the imperial family’s popularity at its highest level since the Second World War. Credit for this belongs to Japan’s 125th emperor, Akihito, who abdicated last April after thirty years on the throne.

During the postwar part of the Showa era, as Hirohito’s reign is known in Japan, the emperor was a politically divisive figure, reviled by the left and literally worshipped by some on the far right. By the end of his reign – the period known as Heisei – Akihito had brought about a political and institutional transformation, rich in irony and paradox. Out of an ancient aristocratic history, he recreated his family as an emblem of middle-class decency. He kept at bay conservative ultranationalists who attempted to make him the vehicle of a right-wing revival. He took on the question of Japan’s historic relationship with its East Asian neighbours and its responsibility for their wartime suffering. Despite his status as a constitutional monarch, barred from politics, Akihito established himself as representative of one of the dominant streams of political sentiment in postwar Japan, although one which by the 21st century was becoming marginalised – an earnest, anxious, centre-left pacifism, grounded in a passionate and defensive attachment to democracy and the ideals of the 1947 ‘peace’ constitution.

It would be wildly misleading to describe Akihito as a radical or socialist. But, during a period of crisis and decline for Japan’s left, the most prominent, consistent, determined and effective figurehead for progressive politics in the country was the heir to a hereditary monarchy. No one has been more effective than Emperor (now Emperor Emeritus) Akihito in asserting the rights of the disadvantaged, or emphasising the grim lessons of Japan’s mid-20th-century wars and the fragility of the era of peace, democracy and prosperity that followed.

Most remarkable is the fact that he articulated all this indirectly. The postwar constitution, created by the American occupiers, defines the emperor as ‘the symbol of the state and of the unity of the people’; he is permitted to ‘perform only such acts in matters of state as are provided for in this constitution and he shall not have powers related to government’. In practice, this amounts to a far stricter constraint on political utterance than that imposed on other constitutional monarchies. Akihito faithfully avoided straying across this line. Instead, he communicated by a kind of code, making seemingly bland statements and innocent observations which vibrated with significance.

Like many monarchs, Akihito and his wife, Empress Michiko, became identified over the years with a personal style as practised and familiar in its own way as the British royal family’s handbags, corgis and stiff G&Ts. There were his double-breasted suits and her old-fashioned hats. There was their public demeanour, one of intense solicitousness and earnest courtesy. And there were his enthusiasms: his love of tennis, the cello and, above all, his scientific research into the taxonomy of a small fish called the goby. Akihito’s expertise is genuine: he has done painstaking work in distinguishing different goby species by minute comparison of their shoulder blades. It’s an appealing, almost Pythonesque image – the boffin emperor in his palace, happily picking through fish bones. And yet few modern monarchs have been more burdened by care, both about the present and future of the imperial institution and about generational conflict, mental illness and personal unhappiness within his immediate family, much of it suffered by women.

The theme that runs through Akihito’s life is war – the horrors it inflicts and the duty to prevent its recurrence. He was born in 1933, the year Japan withdrew from the League of Nations following its invasion of Manchuria, and ended the war as a privileged evacuee. He returned to a defeated city burned flat by incendiary bombing; on his 15th birthday in 1948, the wartime prime minister, Hideki Tojo, and six other convicted war criminals were hanged by an American executioner at Sugamo Prison. Akihito was the first emperor to receive a conventional education, at Gakushuin, Japan’s grandest school; among his English tutors was Elizabeth Vining, an American Quaker, who nicknamed him ‘Jimmy’. ‘His interests in those days were almost entirely confined to fish,’ she wrote later, ‘and I felt they needed broadening.’ The influence of this American pacifist on the young prince was regarded resentfully by right-wing intellectuals; one of them would later complain that Akihito had contracted a spiritual and intellectual ‘fungus’ from his tutor.

His father, Hirohito, was never an active war commander or strategist, but modern scholarship makes it clear that far from opposing the Pacific War, he only ever opposed losing it. From the day of Japan’s surrender, however, there had been a feverish effort not only to exculpate Hirohito, but to depict him as a pacifist who, by his surrender, had personally saved his unhappy people from annihilation. Having emerged from the war unhanged and undeposed, Hirohito spent the rest of his reign publicly playing the role of a constitutional monarch, while behind the scenes he was busy questioning the appointment of ministers or encouraging ‘measures’ against communists. His son, however, not only met the technical requirements of the postwar settlement, but helped to define and embody it.

The decisive moment was his marriage in 1959 to Michiko Shoda, the beautiful, Catholic-educated daughter of a flour magnate. The couple quickly made themselves emblems of cheerful middle-class consumerism. The crown princess was photographed in her pinny, standing in the kitchen among her appliances; holding hands with her husband as they skated; or playing with their young children on the beach. Akihito’s covert engagement with politics has attracted more attention, but it was arguably the greater achievement to fashion a hereditary monarchy purged of grandeur and hauteur.

The prewar emperors were magically remote personalities, figuratively ‘above the clouds’. Hirohito was seen by his subjects in photographs and newsreels wearing military uniform and mounted on a white stallion. His famous surrender broadcast on 15 August 1945 was the first time that most of them had heard his voice; many of those huddled around their radios had only a general sense of what he was saying because his stylised delivery and imperial diction were so far from standard speech. The personal manner of Akihito’s family is difficult to describe, because they are a long way from being easy, affable or conventionally charming. My own encounters with them have been limited to the press conferences that they routinely give for their birthdays and before making overseas trips. At one of these, I stood in a line with my fellow correspondents to be greeted by the then Crown Prince Naruhito and Crown Princess Masako. Various impressions registered from the fleeting handshake: the noticeable difference in their heights (she is a few inches taller, a fact disguised in public); the fact that we all inexplicably felt the need to whisper; and the strange atmosphere of gentle and well-meaning strain that members of the imperial family seem to carry around. Like Akihito and Michiko, Naruhito and Masako give the impression of being terribly nice people, desperately – almost neurotically – concerned that you’re not having a sufficiently good time. They are awkward and distant, not from a sense of entitlement and superiority, but out of an anxious humility.

Anxiety was the defining emotion in Akihito’s palace; whatever the personal impulses behind his remaking of the imperial personality, it was not pursued for its own sake, but as a matter of survival and with a keen sense of vulnerability. ‘We are fighting an election every day of the week,’ Prince Philip once said of the British royal family. Akihito’s efforts were many times more energetic and consistent, even though Japan doesn’t have a republican movement, and alternatives to the monarchy are almost never debated in the mass media. ‘Ten per cent of people support the imperial system regardless of what they do, because of blood and succession,’ I was told by someone who worked inside the palace. ‘Seventy or eighty per cent are more or less comfortable, as long as they’re performing their role diligently, devotedly, dedicatedly. Unless the overwhelming majority feel more or less comfortable, this system could be in trouble. They [Akihito’s family] have to prove that the existence of the monarchy means something – it’s a conscious agenda for them. For that purpose their solution is to work hard.’

Reporting on the imperial family is a struggle, for Japanese as well as foreign journalists. With the single exception of an audience given by Hirohito to an American journalist in 1975, its members have never given interviews. At their press conferences, questions have to be submitted in advance; the answers are read from a script. Relations with the media, as all other aspects of their lives, are regulated by the Imperial Household Agency, a conservative organisation staffed largely by bureaucrats of mediocre ability and well-developed arrogance. But the senior positions in the IHA are filled by civil servants from other government departments, including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs; and among these appointees are shrewd, broad-minded and courteous men (they are inevitably men), eager to talk about their work and the monarch whom they serve. In 2007, I spent a few weeks talking at length to several of them. They were far from being detached and objective observers, but they conveyed vividly the strangeness of the life the emperor and empress live.

A day in the life of Akihito and Michiko began at 6.30 a.m., when they rose, watched the television news, then walked around one of the gardens in the Imperial Palace. The old palace buildings were destroyed by the American bombs, and the current buildings date from the late 1960s: smart and dignified, like their occupants, but far from the opulence of a European palace. Akihito would go between them on foot or, if it rained, in his car, a grey 1991 Honda Integra, which he drove himself – he insisted on keeping to the speed limit, wearing his seat belt and renewing his driving licence, although these roads were private and free of traffic.

At the palace he received visitors – government ministers, foreign leaders and royalty, newly arrived ambassadors, and the recipients of imperial awards. Thirty-two times a year, dressed in the garb of a Shinto priest, he paid his respects at a shrine to his legendary ancestor, the sun goddess, Amaterasu. In the evenings there were official receptions and banquets. Last thing at night, the emperor and empress might watch a nature programme or a video. Thirteen years ago, when the information was shared with me, they did this on a VHS player – there was no DVD player in the palace, and no internet. The senior courtiers to whom I was speaking did not have work email accounts, or even computers on their desks. My communications with Makoto Watanabe, then the grand chamberlain, were by telephone through his secretary; one of his colleagues, a slightly younger man, had a personal email account that he could access at home. But the imperial couple were avid consumers of print, both Japanese newspapers and magazines, and, I was told, my own newspaper, the Times, which arrived at the palace by airmail several days late.

Apart from a modest seaside villa and a house in the mountains, the family have no grand retreats. A budget of 324 million yen (£2.3 million) a year is allocated to the emperor’s private household (a little less than the cost of renovations to Frogmore Cottage), but all of this has to be accounted for. The emperor has no property or money of his own – even the weekend residences are owned by the state. Once, I was told, Akihito was being briefed by the governor of the Bank of Japan on the state of the consumer economy. At one point, he interrupted with a puzzled question: ‘What is a cashpoint machine?’

Akihito and Michiko did very little private socialising, and rarely accepted hospitality outside the palace. ‘It’s very difficult because of security,’ Watanabe told me, ‘and also [because of] the question of fairness. Why go to that person’s house, and not to another’s? … Somehow it’s not done.’ On Saturday mornings, Akihito played tennis with his courtiers. On Sundays, in his later years, he relaxed by pursuing a new line of research, into the tanuki, or raccoon dogs, which inhabited the palace grounds. ‘The emperor collected their droppings every Sunday afternoon between January 2009 and December 2013,’ the Kyodo news agency reported, ‘and examined plant seeds contained in them through a microscope.’

The imperial family enjoy almost none of the perks of royalty: this is the greatest contrast with the British royal family, with which it is most often compared. ‘If they can take one whole day off a week, they are very lucky,’ Watanabe told me. ‘They belong to this very frugal, serious, workaholic generation which almost views leisure or a wealthy lifestyle as immoral … They don’t complain about it and they don’t show it in public, but I’m sure it affects them physically and psychologically.’ Akihito himself touched on this in his birthday address in 2013. ‘Having already lived eighty years, I am somewhat perplexed by the question about my life in the coming years,’ he said. ‘Being an emperor can be a lonely state.’

Akihito’s​ reformation of the imperial institution was stealthy, covert and never announced or articulated in formal terms, but to those who had lived through the prewar period it was startling; none was more disconcerted than the group who regarded themselves as the emperor’s most loyal admirers – the loose alliance of politicians, academics, Shinto priests and lobbyists who compose the activists on the nationalist far right. In Japan’s Imperial House in the Postwar Era, 1945-2019, Kenneth Ruoff, the pre-eminent English-speaking scholar of the contemporary imperial house, identifies the distinctive strands of Akihitoism.* Among them are his ‘efforts to compress the margins of [Japanese] society’ by engaging in person with the disabled, disadvantaged and victims of natural disaster. Akihito and Michiko visited leprosy sanatoriums and homes for the elderly and disabled, and became patrons of the Paralympics in its earliest days. They knelt beside those displaced by volcanos, earthquakes and tsunamis. In a post-Diana era, displays of royal empathy have become a benign cliché, but it’s difficult to exaggerate the contrast with the style of the remote Hirohito, or the extent to which these good works disturbed the far right. Ruoff quotes the reaction of the commentator Jun Eto to the hugs and handshakes that the emperor and empress exchanged with survivors of the Kobe earthquake in 1995. ‘It is not necessary [for them] to kneel down,’ he wrote.

It is not necessary to be at the same line of sight as the victims. If one views it from the perspective of the emperor having a special position according to the constitution, then it would make no difference if they stood. It would be fine if they were on top of a horse or in a car. There is no necessity whatsoever for the imperial couple to try to be loved by the people.

To people like Eto, the emperor was compromising imperial dignity simply by being nice and, from their point of view, things would get much worse. It is in his relationship to the constitution that the ironies surrounding Akihito become richest and most complicated. In the early decades after the war, right-wing intellectuals and organisations such as the Association of Shinto Shrines had campaigned unsuccessfully for the constitution to be revised or even scrapped, and for the restoration of the Meiji constitution of the 19th century, which positioned the emperor at the heart of political life. Those on the left naturally opposed all such suggestions. But this predictable polarisation was thrown into confusion by the accession of Akihito.

The signs were there even when he was crown prince, always expressed indirectly but in language palpably unfavourable to the nationalist right. ‘Terms such as “Peace Country” and “Culture Country” that were widely used immediately after the war make people of my generation nostalgic,’ he said in 1974, ‘I would like to give those concepts another try.’ His enthronement ceremony in 1990 was, on the face of it, a triumph of regressive conservatism, conducted according to the invented traditions of 19th-century Shinto. But Akihito spoiled it all with his oath of office, which he devised himself, in which he swore that he would protect the constitution ‘with all of you’ – implying the people at large.

By the time of Akihito’s succession Japan had become the second richest country in the world, the richest in Asia, and a bountiful provider of development aid to the peoples it had formerly tyrannised. Japanese consumer products, especially cars and electronics, as well as industrial technology and management techniques, had spread far beyond Japan. In the course of the Heisei period, Japanese cultural products, including food, whisky, fashion, architecture, film, television drama, fiction, comics, computer games, pop music, art and photography were taken up all over the world. The notion of the Japanese as a ‘cruel’ race, the unquestioned assumption of many people of my grandfather’s generation, all but evaporated in the West to be replaced by new and overwhelmingly positive associations: stylishness, sophistication, creativity and cool. But in East Asia, these two notions existed side by side. There are many Chinese and South Koreans who love ramen, manga, Uniqlo and Haruki Murakami, who hop over to Tokyo or Fukuoka to shop and eat, but who see no reason to regard the Japanese of today as fundamentally different from those who murdered, raped and enslaved their forebears in the 1930s and 1940s. The Japanese have failed in the task so successfully managed by the Germans, of persuading their former enemies that they are sorry.

Much of this has to do with the survival of the imperial house. Japan changed in fundamental and irreversible ways during the US occupation of 1945-52, but there were powerful continuities. The intensifying Cold War, and the outbreak of hot war in Korea in 1950, led the Americans to unpurge middle-ranking conservative politicians and bureaucrats whose status as anti-communists had suddenly become an asset. They actively endorsed the ludicrous portrayal of Hirohito as a helpless hostage of evil militarists against whom he had heroically prevailed. If the emperor was the blameless victim of a small and manipulative clique, then it was natural for many of his people to see themselves the same way. The war’s final act, the unprecedented horror of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, enhanced this sense of victimhood and made it easy for individual Japanese to avoid reflecting on the small ways in which almost all of them had colluded, actively as well as passively. ‘Why didn’t the Japanese people try to pursue the emperor’s war responsibility?’ the critic Tadao Sato asked. ‘For the vast majority of the people, the easiest way to exonerate themselves of responsibility for the war was to exonerate the emperor.’

Akihito never contradicted the established view of his father; indeed, in his only public utterance on the matter, he went some way towards endorsing it. ‘It is my perception,’ he said, ‘that the events that led to war must have been contrary to what he would have wished.’ But throughout his reign he gave the impression of doing all he could to unsettle complacent and forgetful attitudes to the war, and to discomfort those on the right who regarded it as a just and heroic undertaking. In 1995, on the fiftieth anniversary of their destruction, he visited Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as his father had done in the early postwar years. But he also went to places where Hirohito would never have dreamed of showing his face. He returned repeatedly to Okinawa, the site of the war’s deadliest battle, and the only place in the home islands where large numbers of civilians faced an enemy invasion. In 1994 he visited Iwo Jima, the tiny volcanic island where only 216 of the 21,000 strong Japanese garrison survived; in 2004 he went to Saipan, where Japanese civilians were herded off cliffs by their own soldiers, to fall to their deaths rather than surrender; in 2015 he visited Palau, the site of another grotesquely hopeless last stand. Not even the most rabid militarist could have objected to his purpose: to offer prayers of ‘consolation’ to the dead of all sides. In practice though, the effect of such visits and the media coverage they attracted was to remind Japanese of the butchery and waste that characterised the last year of the war. ‘With each passing year, we will have more and more Japanese who have never experienced war,’ he said in 2015. ‘But I believe having thorough knowledge about the last war and deepening our thoughts about the war is most important for the future of Japan.’

The political intent embedded in these pilgrimages was most explicit in Akihito’s engagements with foreign leaders. ‘I think of the sufferings your people underwent during this unfortunate period, which was brought about by my country, and cannot but feel the deepest regret,’ he told the visiting South Korean president, Roh Tae-woo, in 1990. Two years later, on a visit to China, he said: ‘In the long history of the relationship between our two countries, there was an unfortunate period in which my country inflicted great sufferings on the people of China. I deeply deplore this.’

These statements, short of direct apology but approaching it, were not the work of the emperor alone, or even his senior courtiers; they reflected the relatively centrist and internationalist tenor of the Liberal Democratic governments of the time, a stark contrast with the conservative nationalism of the party led by the current prime minister, Shinzo Abe. On the fiftieth anniversary of Japan’s surrender in 1995, the socialist prime minister, Tomiichi Murayama, explicitly apologised for the war, in a statement that was repeated in its essentials and endorsed by successive cabinets for the next twenty years. He spoke of Japan’s ‘mistaken national policy’, and of ‘colonial rule and aggression [which] caused tremendous damage and suffering to the people of many countries, particularly those of Asian nations’. ‘In the hope that no such mistake be made in the future,’ Murayama concluded. ‘I regard, in a spirit of humility, these irrefutable facts of history, and express here once again my feelings of deep remorse and state my heartfelt apology.’

On the eve of the seventieth anniversary in 2015, Abe made it clear that such statements were a thing of the past. ‘We have engraved in our hearts the histories of suffering of the people in Asia as our neighbours,’ he said. ‘We must not let our children, grandchildren, and even further generations to come, who have nothing to do with that war, be destined to carry the burden of apology.’ The crucial phrase in the Murayama statement – ‘deep remorse’ – would not be uttered again by this prime minister. But the following day, in Abe’s presence, Akihito took up the baton that Japan’s elected leader had dropped. In his annual statement marking the end of the war, he used Murayama’s phrase for the first time. ‘Reflecting on our past and bearing in mind the feelings of deep remorse over the last war,’ he said, ‘I earnestly hope that the ravages of war will never be repeated.’

Akihito’s politics shone through on other, less formal occasions. At a garden party, he expressed his disagreement with the Tokyo city government’s decision to make it compulsory for schools to raise the flag and sing the national anthem, a hymn to the emperor. His most memorable needling of the far right came at his birthday press conference in 2001, the year before Japan co-hosted the World Cup with South Korea. One of the questions, obediently pre-submitted by the Japanese press, asked for ‘any interests or thoughts you have concerning the Republic of Korea’. The answer, at first glance, appeared pedantic and uninteresting, a rambling disquisition on the introduction into Japan of Korean music and technology in the eighth century. So droning was the preamble that it was easy to miss the significance of what came next. ‘I, for my part, feel a certain kinship with Korea,’ Akihito said, ‘given that it is recorded in the Shoku Nihongi that the mother of Emperor Kammu was of the line of King Muryong of the Kingdom of Paekche … King Song Myong, son of King Muryong, is recognised as the one who introduced Buddhism to Japan.’

The Shoku Nihongi are ancient imperial chronicles. Kammu and Muryong were ancient monarchs of Japan and Korea. Concealed by the historical verbiage was an observation that was also a rebuke to all those espousing myths of Japanese racial uniqueness and purity: not only had Japan borrowed richly from its neighbour, but 75 generations back, Akihito’s direct forebear was a Korean. ‘It is regrettable, however, that Japan’s exchanges with Korea have not all been of this kind,’ Akihito concluded. ‘This is something that we should never forget.’ The statement made front-page news in Seoul, but was all but ignored by Japanese journalists, who seemed to struggle to know what to make of it. The people to whom it was directed understood very well.

Having campaigned for years for a restoration of the emperor’s authority, organisations such as the Association of Shinto Shrines suddenly became indignant that Akihito was being ‘used’ for political ends, and demanded that he adhere to his constitutional role as a strictly symbolic figure. Their horror at the realisation that the emperor was not an imperialist wasn’t manifested directly: emperor-worshippers, by definition, cannot criticise the object of their devotion. Their target was the closest thing to him: his wife.

There is​ no gauge for measuring the unhappiness of families, but Hirohito’s descendants have had more than their share of troubles and of tragedy. In 2007, Akihito’s first cousin gave a speech which memorably began: ‘I’m Prince Tomohito. I’m an alcoholic.’ ‘As long as I can remember,’ the prince told an interviewer, ‘the imperial family has been one big ball of stress.’ Tomohito’s older brother, Prince Katsura, suffered a stroke at the age of forty that left him paralysed; his younger brother, Prince Takamado, died of a heart attack aged 47. All three sons predeceased their parents. The whispering campaign against Michiko, mainly in the form of bitchy articles in magazines, began in the early days of her marriage. She got on badly with her mother-in-law, Empress Nagako, a formidable figure from the old aristocracy who looked down on the businessman’s daughter. The Shinto establishment focused its resentment on her education at the Sacred Heart, an expensive Catholic school in Tokyo. Although she was never baptised, there was speculation that she, and the Quaker-educated ‘Jimmy’ Akihito, harboured crypto-Christian sympathies.

Michiko seems to have suffered a breakdown in 1963 and thirty years later she stopped speaking for seven months. The poised and comely young bride was transformed to a thin, strained-looking woman. ‘I never expressed it in terms of the word “pressure”,’ she said at a press conference when she was in her early seventies. ‘I just felt sad and sorry for not living up to people’s expectations and demands. I feel the same way even now … It has been a great challenge to get through each and every day with my sorrow and anxiety. When I am sad and concerned about things, I don’t know how to cope. So sometimes I pray or whisper a childish magical charm.’

With grim inevitability, the cycle of unhappiness repeated itself in the next generation. At 32, the age when Japanese mothers start to fret about unmarried sons, Akihito’s heir, Crown Prince Naruhito, became engaged to Masako Owada, an internationally educated diplomat on the fast-track at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. She had repeatedly declined his proposals, but seems to have yielded to the argument that she could do more valuable work on behalf of her country as princess and empress. From the point of view of the palace, however, Masako’s intelligence and education were secondary to her principal function: to give birth to a future emperor.

This Princess Masako failed to do. Under the Imperial Household Law, only a male heir can succeed to the Chrysanthemum Throne. For generations, the imperial family has displayed a statistically unlikely tendency to give birth to daughters, or to sons who die in childhood. At the end of the 20th century, the last boy to have been born into the family was Akihito’s younger son, Akishino, in 1965. Both of his children, like Akihito’s other grandchildren, were girls. After him, succession fell to a line of increasingly elderly uncles and cousins. Following the crown prince’s marriage to Masako, six years passed with no sign of a baby. In 1999, she miscarried. Two years later, after fertility treatment, she became pregnant and gave birth to the couple’s first and only child, Princess Aiko.

The family drama behind these events burst into the open in 2004. At the end of the previous year, Masako had abruptly disappeared from public view. The Imperial Household Agency reported that she was experiencing ‘stress’ and ‘exhaustion’; in fact, she had had a breakdown. At a drastically unscripted press conference, Crown Prince Naruhito spoke directly, and with unmistakable anger, about her unhappiness and frustration. Having failed to produce an heir, the life of freedom and foreign travel that had been the condition of their engagement was blocked to her. Naruhito spoke of ‘moves that nullified her career and nullified her character based on that career’. At the time, it seemed that the source of his frustration was the agency and its courtiers; in fact, as became clear during my own conversations on the subject, the target of his anger was his father.

Naruhito and Masako wanted what they believed they had been promised: the opportunity of a royal ‘career’, rather than just a succession of duties. Akihito identified an immensely more important priority: the continuation of the line. After Aiko’s birth, the succession crisis could no longer be ignored. The momentum was building towards a change in the law that would have allowed her, and future imperial daughters, to succeed as reigning empress. But in 2006, Akishino’s wife conveniently gave birth to a son, Prince Hisahito. The crisis has been deferred for a generation. The future of the world’s oldest royal family now depends on one 13-year-old boy.

The justifications invoked by opponents of female succession – to do with the survival of the male Y-chromosome imparted by the first, mythical emperor – are absurd, making it tempting to write off the imperial institution itself as an absurdity. But it is more important and more sinister than that. Britain’s royal family is deplorable principally because it institutionalises the corrosive divisions of social class. Japan’s imperial house does damage of a different kind. Akihito succeeded in creating what looks in some ways like an ideal monarchy – modest, unsnobbish, inexpensive, highly educated, and shorn of links to the armed forces. But the virtues he represented, of pacifism, liberalism, democracy and respect for science, don’t need a hereditary institution to support them: they flourish, or founder, elsewhere, in parliament, the media, academia and civil society. Japan’s imperial system serves as the culture for a virus that has struggled to survive elsewhere: a cult of superstition, racism and authoritarianism that remains flickeringly alive even now, three-quarters of a century after its military defeat.

Akihito’s determination to remain within constitutional limits made it impossible for him to achieve what might have been his greatest achievement: to bring about reconciliation with the victims of Japanese wartime brutality. Words were proffered, but words were not enough. The dissent of a minority of right-wing nationalists – and they are a minority – was enough to neutralise such speech. What was needed was a physical gesture, a recordable, replayable visual emblem of atonement, comparable to Willy Brandt’s Kniefall at the Warsaw Ghetto. Akihito could have done this; he came close on those Pacific battlefields. But by the 21st century such a gesture was no longer required by people in the West. To carry the necessary meaning, it would have had to be made in Asia; it would have had to be made in China.

No postwar government had the conviction or courage to make real such a moment, and Akihito’s self-defined role as protector of the constitution made it impossible, by definition, for him to step outside it unaccompanied. It is one of Japan’s greatest failures in 75 years of postwar success that it remains unreconciled with the countries in the world with which it has the closest physical, linguistic and cultural proximity. The tragedy is that it is now too late: everyone who carried individual responsibility for the war is dead, or soon will be.

The ripest opportunity was lost in the years after the war, when the American occupiers rejected all arguments for abolishing the imperial house or even for Hirohito stepping down in favour of his son. It is tempting to see Akihito’s abdication last year as a covert message of reproach directed at his own dead father. Yet even he could not allow himself to permit the imperial family to do what its own patterns of birth have been trying to achieve – a peaceful, natural extinction.

‘If you ask me what the imperial family is all about, and I think and think and think about it, the very final conclusion is that our meaning lies in our simply existing,’ Tomohito said. The imperial family, he concluded, could discharge its duty simply by ‘waking up in the morning, eating breakfast, eating lunch, eating dinner, then going to sleep, repeating that 365 days a year’. Akihito, when he was still crown prince, considered another possibility, only to dismiss it. ‘Constitutionally, in a sense, it would be best for the imperial family members to be robots,’ he said. ‘But I don’t think it would be best for us to be robots. That’s the difficult part.’

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