Japan's royal family

To commemorate the 80th anniversary of the start of Canadian-Japanese diplomatic relations, Japanese Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko will spend 12 days in Canada.

A visit to remember: the emperor returns to Canada after 56 years

Japanese Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko arrive at the Ottawa airport on July 3 for an 11-day visit to Canada. ((Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press))
Teruko Shin's mother had bought the blue floral kimono in Japan for her to wear on her wedding day.

But instead, at the age of 24, Shin donned the formal traditional garb to greet the Japanese emperor-to-be, Akihito, during a stop at a train station in Hamilton, Ont., in 1953.

"He got off the train and came to us and just waved, you know, to say hello," recalls Shin, a tea ceremony teacher in her 80s. "It was nice. He didn't say anything. He just smiled and waved his hand."

Akihito, then crown prince, is surrounded by Japanese-Canadians during a stop in Hamilton, Ont., in 1953. ((Hamilton Spectator))

One of Shin's three younger sisters pleaded with the prince to speak.

"My younger sister, Yoko, she was only 14 then … she said, 'Say something to us, say something to us!' And he just looked at us and bowed his head."

Akihito was a single, 19-year-old crown prince at the time. He was in the midst of travelling across Canada as part of a country-hopping trip en route to Britain for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. It was his first time travelling abroad.

His 10 days in Canada saw him travel almost coast to coast — starting in Victoria, B.C., taking the train across the Prairies, spending time in Ontario, including Niagara Falls, before leaving from Montreal.

At each stop, the emperor recalls a welcoming crowd, despite chilly April temperatures hovering around freezing.

"I was deeply touched that many people of Japanese ancestry came to the stations to greet me warmly in spite of the severely cold weather," he wrote in a note about his past and upcoming trips.

Akihito arrived in Ottawa Friday for a 12-day trip that will mirror much of what he did 56 years ago, but this time as emperor and with his wife, Empress Michiko, at his side. It's her first time in Canada.

The official reason for the royal couple's visit is to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the start of Canadian-Japanese diplomatic relations.

When Akihito was last here, Japan was in the midst of rejoining the international community following the country's surrender that brought the Second World War to an end.

Facts about the Emperor:

Name: Akihito

Date of birth: Dec. 23, 1933

Accession to the throne: Jan. 7, 1989

Wife: Michiko

Her date of birth: Oct. 20, 1934

Children:

  • Crown Prince Naruhito (born Feb. 23, 1960)
  • Prince Akishino (born Nov. 30, 1965)
  • Princess Sayako (born April 18, 1969)

Oldest monarchy

For most of the monarchy's history, the reigning sovereign was believed to have divine powers. But following the war, the Showa emperor, Akihito's father, renounced any claim to divinity and the 1947 constitution underlined the emperor's token status.

But for traditional Japanese, the emperor is still regarded as divine, and most Japanese refer to the emperor in a reverential manner as "his majesty" or simply "the present emperor." Few would dare to call him by his given name, Akihito, as foreigners do.

Akihito has marked a move away from some of the centuries old customs since he ascended to the Chrysanthemum Throne in 1989.

He is the first emperor to come into the role without any divine status, and he broke tradition by marrying a commoner in 1959.

Japan's hereditary monarchy is the oldest in the world, though the date the first emperor took the throne is disputed. Schoolchildren are taught that the first emperor, Jimmu, became the reigning sovereign on Feb. 11 in 660 B.C., a date now recognized as National Foundation Memorial Day.

Some scholars say the hereditary monarchy dates back to the middle to late Yayoi period (about 100 B.C. to 300 A.D.) and that the sovereign line began with a local chieftain.

Stature takes its toll

Most of the royal couple's time is spent with within the confines of the Imperial Palace in downtown Tokyo, the inner portion of which is open to the public only two days a year — on the emperor's birthday, Dec. 23, and on Jan. 2.

But the stature has taken its toll on the couple, both in their mid-70s, and their family members. Michiko opened up about feeling sadness "each and every day" and has sought treatment.

Crown Princess Masako, a commoner who married into the family, has struggled with a psychological illness and faced intense pressure to produce a male heir.

Though the emperor's days are filled with official business, he spends much of his free time studying what has become a consuming hobby: goby fish. It's a subject the emperor is considered a world expert on and he has published dozens of peer-reviewed papers.

Michiko is more focused on musical pursuits and is an accomplished pianist and harpist.

For Teruko Shin, she acknowledges that part of the reason she loves the royal family is her deep appreciation for all Japanese traditions, including her beloved tea ceremony. But she waffles when asked whether the royals should become even more modern, though she sees it as inevitable.

"They're going to change into something else," she muses. "They are so heavy on the traditional, always traditional."

With files from The Associated Press