Photo/IllutrationCrown Prince Naruhito, left, and Crown Princess Masako acknowledge onlookers as they are driven to the Imperial Palace on Dec. 23. (Hiroyuki Yamamoto)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

Crown Prince Naruhito and Crown Princess Masako seem to know what sort of imperial couple they want to be.

Naruhito, dressed in a tracksuit, was seen among a group of people jogging around the Imperial Palace on the afternoon of Feb. 25, 2015.

It was his first jog around the palace in eight years, and he finished the 5-kilometer route in a solid time of 27 minutes and 20 seconds.

He makes it his daily routine to run in the grounds of the Akasaka Estate, where his residence is located. The crown prince, whose hobbies include mountaineering, has also climbed more than 170 mountains.

“He has been working out on a daily basis so that he can stand in for the emperor anytime,” said an Imperial Household Agency source.

Naruhito will ascend the Chrysanthemum Throne in May 2019, ending the Heisei Era and starting his reign at age 59--the second-oldest emperor ever at the time of ascension.

The crown prince has hinted what sort of emperor he intends to be. Naruhito mentioned water control and other water-related issues he researches as his life’s work, saying that it is his “new public duty in step with the era.”

The comment is based on his ideas that solving water issues can contribute to the resolution of poverty, regional conflicts over water resources and the realization of peace. It seems fair to say that it is a new style of public duty corresponding to globalization.

“Seeing things through the lens of water, he is concerned with environmental problems, poverty and other issues commonly shared by the world,” said Kenzo Hiroki, 58, a former Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism official, who has worked with Naruhito. “I feel that he is strongly motivated to care for underprivileged people.”

Masako, who turned 54 on Dec. 9, 2017, has long been recuperating from an illness since December 2003. She still needs to consult with doctors to determine whether she can attend events and ceremonies, but her health has been improving over the past couple of years.

In last April, Masako attended an event at Gakushuin University’s Mejiro Campus in Tokyo, talking to visually disabled people at a booth set up to raise awareness of guide dogs.

“I clearly felt Masako-sama was kind enough to talk to me eye to eye,” Mitsuo Sakamoto, 71, who is blind, recalled.

According to Eye Mate Inc., an association that trains guide dogs, Masako has been visiting the booth almost every year since 2013 when she showed up with her husband and their daughter, Princess Aiko.

In her statement released to mark her birthday, the crown princess said she wishes that “a sense of warm understanding and cooperation for people in a weak position” would prevail. True to her words, Masako has taken a personal interest in the care of children and the elderly.

After Masako made an official trip to Fukuinryo, a child welfare facility in Tokyo’s Setagaya Ward, in 2002, she has made two private trips to the facility. She bent down and emphatically listened to children.

“We felt how she was giving encouragement to children separated from their families for many different reasons,” said manager Masato Iida, 59.

A high-ranking official of the Imperial Household Agency added: “Private activities in a field of her interest have also served as a means to regain her health.”

Masako made official visits to local areas in four prefectures in 2016, but the number grew to six over the past year.

CHANGING PUBLIC DUTIES

Emperor Akihito took over almost all the duties performed by his father, Hirohito, posthumously known as Emperor Showa, in addition to actively making visits to disaster-stricken areas and trips to console the spirits of the war dead as a symbol of the state.

But as to what will become of Naruhito and Masako’s activities, Nozomu Tominaga, an assistant professor at Kyoto University Archives, points out: “If they take over all the public duties, sooner or later they will find themselves in a difficult situation both time-wise and physically.

“The imperial household has changed to keep up with the times. I think that their public duties must also be sorted out properly by canceling some of the duties after obtaining consent from the public and taking other appropriate steps.”

MEANING OF 'SYMBOL'

Akihito became the first successor to the Chrysanthemum Throne under the current Constitution as the “symbol” of the state.

Questions remain as to what the symbol means, including whether he should perform nothing but state acts described in the Constitution or stay behind the “misu” bamboo blind to offer prayers like some conservatives say.

Akihito and his wife, Empress Michiko, have visited every corner of the country as if they were searching for clues.

The answer they came up with was to go among the people and stay close to them. The imperial couple kneels on the floor to encourage disaster victims and consoles the spirits of the war dead in and outside Japan.

And if he cannot carry out such duties with his “whole being,” it may be time he should abdicate in favor of his elder son. It is fair to say that Akihito’s message televised in August last year was meant to present this conclusion to the people.

The public gave overwhelming support to the emperor, who is over 80, to step down. But as for the reasons, many said that he was getting old and that they want him to live a relaxed life. It is difficult to say that debate over the nature of the emperor as the symbol of the state shown by Akihito, as well as the stable continuation of the imperial throne, has deepened.

Currently, there are only four male heirs in the line of succession, with Prince Hisahito, son of Naruhito’s younger brother Prince Fumihito, being the only minor. Meanwhile, seven of the female imperial members who are in their 30s or younger remain unmarried and many of them are expected to leave the imperial family upon their marriage in the future. Whether the succession to the throne should remain restricted to males or whether female-led branches of the imperial family should be established is an issue that best not be postponed.

The Constitution stipulates that the emperor derives his position from “the will of the people.” The abdication of Akihito is an opportunity for the whole of society to deepen the debate.

It's best not to leave everything in the hands of Naruhito and Masako, who will become the new emperor and empress, or in the hands of the government.

(This article was written by Ayako Nakata, Akiko Tada and Yasuhiko Shima.)