Japan gets a new emperor as Naruhito vows to pursue peace

Associated Press

Emperor Naruhito inherited the sacred sword and jewel Wednesday that signaled his succession as the 126th member of his family to rule Japan, pledging in his first public address to follow his father's example by devoting himself to peace and sharing the people's joys and sorrows.
   Naruhito, the first Japanese emperor to have studied abroad and the first born after Japan's defeat in World War II, formally succeeded to the Chrysanthemum Throne at midnight after his father Akihito abdicated Tuesday. It was the first abdication in more than two centuries.
   "When I think about the important responsibility I have assumed, I am filled with a sense of solemnity," Naruhito said in his address. 
   While noting his father's devotion to praying for peace, Naruhito said he'll "reflect deeply" on the path trodden by Akihito and past emperors. He promised to abide by the constitution that stripped emperors of political power, and to fulfill his responsibility as a national symbol while "always turning my thoughts to the people and standing with them."
   "I sincerely pray for the happiness of the people and the further development of the nation as well as the peace of the world," he said.
   Naruhito is considered a new breed of royal, his outlook forged by the tradition-defying choices of his parents. Akihito devoted his three-decade career to making amends for a war fought in his father's name while bringing the aloof monarchy closer to the people. Naruhito's mother, Empress Emeritus Michiko, was born a commoner and was Catholic educated. Together, they reached out to the people, especially those who faced disability, discrimination and natural disasters.
   Naruhito was presented with the sacred sword and jewel, each in a box and wrapped in cloth, at a morning ceremony that marked his first official duty as emperor.  
   His wife and daughter, Empress Masako and 17-year-old Princess Aiko, were barred from the ceremony, which only adult male royals -- his brother, now Crown Prince Fumihito, and his uncle Prince Hitachi -- were allowed to witness. Their guests included a female Cabinet minister, however, as the Imperial House Law has no provision on the gender of commoners in attendance.
   The banning of female royals at the ceremony underscored the uncertain future of a paternalistic imperial family that faces declining numbers and fewer male heirs.
   Nevertheless, Japan was in a festive mood as it celebrated an imperial succession prompted by retirement rather than death. Many people stood outside the palace Tuesday to reminisce about Akihito's era; others joined midnight events when the transition occurred, and more came to celebrate the beginning of Naruhito's reign.
   Dozens of couples lined up at local government offices to submit marriage documents to mark the first day of Naruhito's era, known as Reiwa, or "beautiful harmony."
   At Tokyo's Chiyoda district office, Natsumi Nishimura, a 27 year-old saleswoman who was at the office to register her marriage with Keigo Mori, a 32- year-old government worker, said they decided to tie the knot at the start of a new era to mark their new life together.
   "Opportunities like this don't come by often so we thought it would be a day we won't forget," Nishimura said.
   From a car window on his way to and from the palace, Naruhito smiled and waved at the people cheering on the sidewalk. He and his family will still live at the crown prince's Togu Palace until they switch places with his parents.
   He is the nation's 126th emperor, according to a palace count that historians say likely included mythical figures until around the 5th century. 
   The emperor under Japan's Constitution is a symbol without political power. Wartime militarist governments worshipped the emperor as a living god until Naruhito's grandfather renounced that status after Japan's 1945 war defeat. 
   Naruhito has promised to emulate his father in seeking peace and staying close to the people. Palace watchers say he might focus on global issues, including disaster prevention, water conservation and climate change, which could appeal to younger Japanese.
   In an annual news conference marking his Feb. 23 birthday, Naruhito said he was open to taking up a new role that "suits the times." But he said his father's work will be his guidepost.
   He also faces uncertainties in the imperial household. Only his younger brother, Prince Akishino, 53, and Akishino's 12-year-old son, Prince Hisahito, can currently succeed him. The Imperial House Law confines the succession to male heirs, leaving Naruhito's daughter, Aiko, now 17, out of the running.
   Naruhito's wife Masako is a Harvard-educated former diplomat who may prove an adept partner in his overseas travels and activities. But much will depend on her health, since she has been recovering from what the palace describes as stress-induced depression for about 15 years.
   Naruhito is the first monarch raised by his own parents, as Akihito and Michiko, who was born a commoner, chose to take care of their children instead of leaving them in the hands of palace staff. They also supported his choice to attend Oxford University, where he researched the history of the Thames River transportation systems.
   Follow Mari Yamaguchi on Twitter at https://www.twitter.com/mariyamaguchi