Reiwa characters
Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga unveils the new era name “Reiwa” at a press conference_Reuters

Tomorrow, May 1, 2019, begins the era of Reiwa in Japan.

Today, April 30, 2019, Emperor Akihito, the son of Emperor Hirohito, will abdicate the throne and be succeeded by his son, the Crown Prince Naruhito.

In Japan, every period of an Emperor’s rule is given a name, and the Japanese commonly used the era name to mark time. Hirohito’s was Showa, and I was born in the year of Showa 38 (or 1963). Akihito’s was Heisei, and I was married in the year of Heisei 2 (or 1990).

Akihito (age 85) is the first emperor in 200 years to step down from the throne, and he does so in order for he and his wife, Empress Michiko (age 84), to live out the remainder of their lives in a more leisurely fashion, without the daily duties of the royal house. After all, Akihito and Michiko, showed Japan throughout their courtship and marriage that they too had to grow and change with the times.

Akihito and Michiko playing tennis in their early years_Getty
Akihito and Michiko playing tennis after announcing their engagement in 1958.

They first met on a tennis court in Karuizawa one day in August 1957. According to The Daily News, Michiko was partnered with an American named Bobby Doyle, and the Japan-US duo defeated Akihito in his partner over a two-hour two setter. It is said Akihito took a picture of Michiko and quietly had a friend deliver it to her. He also invited Michiko to join another tennis match, with the Shah of Iran.

Thus began the famous tennis romance, that blossomed not only for the couple, but for the entire nation. Not only did the royal couple spark a tennis boom in Japan, there was a boom in interest in the royal family. For Michiko was not of royal blood – a commoner who won the heart of the future Emperor, and “Mit-chi” as Michiko was affectionately called, was highly popular. Their eventual marriage on April 10, 1959, complete with a 8.8 kilometer procession through Tokyo in horse-drawn carriage, was viewed by half-a-million people who lined the course, and tens or million more on newly purchased televisions.

In another break from tradition, Akihito and Michiko decided that they would raise their own children instead of the practice of leaving the rearing of the children to tutors.

Thanks to the newly-founded powers of television to bring images instantly and up close to the average person, the crown prince and princess became celebrities of sorts. People were happy to catch a glimpse of them on a tennis court in Karuizawa or at a pizza restaurant in Roppongi. The members of a preparatory committee who hoped to bring the Stoke Mandeville Games to Tokyo also hoped to leverage the star power of the royal couple.

As related in a previous post, Yoshiyuki Kasai, who led the preparatory committee to bring what would become the 1964 Tokyo Paralympics, arranged for Akihito and Michiko to meet the first Japanese to compete in the Stoke Mandeville Games in London, and tell the couple of their experience competing in a foreign land. Photos of the popular prince and princess with the disabled athletes ignited the preparatory committee’s ability to gain support more broadly within public and private circles.

031164 - Crown Prince Akihito meets teams Tokyo Games - 3b - Sca
The Crown Prince Akihito and Empress Michiko meet representatives of the Australian Paralympic Team and other teams at the Opening Ceremony of the 1964 Tokyo Paralympic Games.

As a result, not only did Akihito and Michiko help make the 1964 Tokyo Paralympics a reality, they were present during much of the 5-day Tokyo Paralympics, not just sitting in the audience, but interacting with the athletes on camera. They single-handedly brought significant national attention to the disabled, and raised the profile of this new international event despite the fact that Japan had just experienced it’s greatest international event, the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, only weeks before.

The reign of Heisei is ending. But the legacies of Akihito and Michiko, including those in the world of sports, will last forever.

Elderly Akihito and Michiko playing tennis

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