TOKYO (Reuters) - A special panel to debate the timing of Emperor Akihito’s abdication, Japan’s first in nearly two centuries, meets on Friday, setting the stage for a formal decision by the government.
Akihito, who turns 84 on Dec. 23 and has had heart surgery and been treated for prostate cancer, said last year he feared age might make it hard to fulfill his duties.
Following are some highlights from Akihito’s career as the first emperor not to be considered divine from the time he ascended the Chrysanthemum Throne in 1989.
Akihito’s 1959 marriage to Michiko Shoda, the daughter of a wealthy industrialist, was the first by an emperor to a commoner and was hailed as a symbol of a new Japan. The two courted at a tennis club and he won her promise to marry him over the phone.
They worked to craft an image of a “middle-class monarchy” in an attempt to draw the imperial family closer to the people.
All three of their children went to university and married commoners, and the public was informed when Akihito was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2002 - in contrast to the secrecy around Emperor Hirohito’s ultimately fatal illness.
Akihito and Michiko have worked to smooth relations across Asia, which suffered from Japan’s aggression before and during World War Two, with numerous visits abroad.
In 1992, he became the first Japanese monarch in living memory to visit China, where bitter memories of the war run deep, and “deeply deplored” an “unfortunate period in which my country inflicted great suffering on the people of China”.
At a news conference marking his birthday in 2001, he said he felt “a certain kinship” with Korea because one of his ancestors had come from there, an unprecedented statement from a Japanese royal that made front page headlines in Seoul.
In 2005, the couple went to the island of Saipan, the scene of bloody fighting during World War Two, to pay respects at memorials honoring Japanese, American and Korean war dead.
Akihito has often urged Japan to remember the suffering of the war, comments that have attracted increased attention in recent years, when Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe appears to be pushing for a less apologetic tone towards Japan’s past.
On Aug. 15, 2015, the 70th anniversary of the war’s end, Akihito departed from his annual script to express “deep remorse”. The day before, Abe had expressed “utmost grief” but said future generations should not have to keep apologizing.
One of the duties the royal couple has taken most seriously has been comforting victims of disasters. Akihito has knelt to talk to evacuees and Michiko has hugged women who lost their homes.
In 2011, Akihito took the unprecedented step of addressing the nation in a televised speech after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami that triggered the world’s worst nuclear crisis in 25 years.
He again turned to television in 2016 to tell the people he feared he was getting too old to carry out his duties, implying he wished to abdicate.
Reporting by Elaine Lies; Editing by Robert Birsel