Photo/IllutrationCrown Prince Akihito, center, is seated while his Gakushuin Primary School classmates stand while they watch Imperial Guards stage a Momotaro play in the grounds of the University of Tokyo’s Nikko Botanical Garden in 1945. (From a document titled “Nikko Tamozawa Imperial Villa Honor Guards of the First Guards Infantry Regiment”)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

NIKKO, Tochigi Prefecture--When he was a boy in World War II, the future Emperor Akihito was packed off to the Nikko Tamozawa Imperial Villa here as a safety precaution.

Imperial Guards charged with protecting the crown prince also took the trouble to keep him entertained.

That explains how a play based on a Japanese folktale staged near the villa portrayed U.S. troops as “ogres” in an attempt to lift Akihito's spirits.

The glimpse into Akihito's childhood emerged in a document kept by the University of Tokyo’s Nikko Botanical Garden in the city’s Hanaishi-cho district that chronicles the duties of Imperial Guards who were in charge of the heir to the throne.

One episode in the document, illustrated with photographs, is about the play. The material, comprising 28 pages of A4-size paper, is a reproduction of a document titled “Nikko Tamozawa Imperial Villa Honor Guards of the First Guards Infantry Regiment.”

The document was prepared in 1999 by a former Imperial Guard, who called on his comrades to contribute articles, photos and reminiscences of that period. The Tochigi prefectural government and the botanical garden also helped with the project.

The document noted that Akihito, then a fifth-grader at Gakushuin Primary School in Tokyo, moved to the Nikko Tamozawa Imperial Villa in July 1944 to take refuge from the war that would end in Japan's defeat the following year.

Akihito, now emperor emeritus following his abdication on April 30, attended classes in the grounds of the botanical garden along with 100 or so Gakushuin third- and fifth-graders who had also been evacuated and were staying at the Nikko Kanaya Hotel.

The play staged on March 29, 1945, outside the makeshift school was based on “Momotaro” (Son of the Peach), a Japanese folktale about a boy who goes to an island with a retinue of animals to subjugate ogres there.

Around that time, U.S. B-29 bombers sometimes flew over Nikko on their missions to attack an aircraft plant in Gunma Prefecture.

OGRES SURRENDER

As the war turned against Japan, Imperial Guards came up with the idea of staging a Momotaro play by themselves for the enjoyment of the crown prince. The writers of the script included a first lieutenant and a second lieutenant.

For the play, Platoon No. 2 took the parts of Momotaro’s troops and Platoon No. 3 acted in the roles of ogres. The story was about Momotaro and his entourage storming the Island of Ogres, where they use a machine gun to shoot down a B-29 manned by "ogres." They finally charge the ogres and force them to surrender.

The document notes that fine weather prevailed that day with spring sunlight bathing the lawn at the venue. About 50 classmates stood in two rows, with Akihito seated in the center, to watch the play.

Cardboard was used to make the masks for a dog, monkey, pheasant and the ogres. Panels were also erected, with a tank and a battleship drawn on them.

The play opened with a “Go!” command.

The monkey and the dog sneaked up to attack the ogres, only to suffer a counterblow. An ogre with a wooden gun, a stand-in for a B-29, held up above his head closed in on Momotaro, who carried a “Japan’s No. 1” flag on his back.

Exactly at that moment, a pretend machine gun deployed next to Momotaro opened fire and shot down the B-29. The ogres fled after offering a cart filled with treasures.

Akihito and his schoolmates roared with laughter as the ogres were put to rout, the document says.

The caption to a photo showing a scene from the play says, “His Imperial Highness the Crown Prince praised the play on Momotaro’s advance on the United States and bestowed six tuna on the entire party.”

Akihito attended classes in the botanical garden grounds every day except Sundays. He often took horseback riding exercises after school, and once took off on a long ride to the Kirifuri Highlands, the document says.

Another passage says Akihito went fishing with his schoolmates to a nearby river and a lake.

Akihito and now Empress Emerita Michiko visited the Tamozawa Imperial Villa in July 1996 and dropped by the botanical garden.

The building that served as Akihito's school burned down in 1966, but was restored as a research laboratory on the same plot and in the original design.

Akihito looked wistful as he toured the building and the Kayoimibashi bridge, which he used to cross on his way to and back from school, sources said.