Wisdom from Ancient Tradition and the 21st Century’s Vitality to be Unified: the Difficult Mission of Japan’s Heir

  February 23, 2009 at 10:46 am by

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The life of Crown Prince Naruhito of Japan, who is celebrating his 49th birthday today; has, right from the beginning, been formed by extremes. His birth, only 9 months after his parents’ wedding on April 10, 1959 (see video) had of course been welcomed by a huge wave of national joy and pride: “It is a boy!” But this warm reception would not guarantee the new baby an easy life, rather to the contrary. As his mother Empress Michiko put it: “This is the child who will be the future tenno. That means that he is a treasure of the nation and of God that is given into my hands. I am not allowed to look upon him as my son.”

Accordingly, this precious child received a very severe treatment to make him “autonomous”: the baby prince was fed by the clock and was not to be caressed or carried around, except if that was necessary for practical reasons. When the toddler was learning to walk, nobody was allowed to help him if he lost his balance and fell to the ground, he had to try and get up by himself. Sometimes he was locked up in his room, and on his door would be written: “Time to play alone”, nobody was allowed to enter. If he did anything wrong, he was severely punished: the prince was beaten, had to stand by himself in the garden or was locked up in a dark closet (all of which happened regularly).

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Although this rigid education strongly reduced the boy’s capacity to express his emotions (as one of his teachers remarked with concern), it certainly taught him obedience: the “good boy” Prince Naruhito was set up as an example to their children by mothers all over Japan. But again, this was not to be the end of the story: it was probably exactly his experience of a strictly rule-regulated life that made the prince appreciate freedom of thought and action as soon as he was offered it. At a press conference on the occasion of his return from his studies at the University of Oxford in London, he said: “I have learnt in Oxford that I can think and decide for myself and that I myself can put things in action. This attitude I want to keep also in the future if possible.”

The hardships of his youth had endowed the prince with the qualities that he needed for the realization of this wish. Especially the story of the prince’s engagement and marriage demonstrates that: first, it took him years of persistence and insistence to convince not only his beloved but also the bureaucrats of the Imperial Household Agency (that has much power over the imperial family in Japan) that she was the right one for him. And after their marriage, Naruhito needed all the courage and strength of will he could muster in order to keep the promise he had given her: to defend and protect her against those who were, as he himself put it, “trying to nullify her character and her career.”

Surprisingly, in all these fights and trials he has obviously never lost his warmth of heart. Naruhito’s friend Isamu Kamata enthusiastically says: “The prince is such an ideal and friendly person without any faults.” And Crown Princess Masako warmly praises her husband’s serenity and his thoughtfulness to the feelings of other people.

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The heir of the Japanese throne is a curious mixture of tenderness of heart and strength of will, of traditional qualities and modern goals. And he will urgently need all of this: If he wants to successfully accomplish his task as Japanese tenno in the 21st century he will be obliged to find a way of bringing together the extremes that have marked his own path in life. As he put it himself: “While carefully dealing with the tradition that has been handed down from generation to generation for a very long time I want to take up activities that fit into the image of a monarchy in the 21st century.”

There has been a lot of attention on the discussion of the imperial succession after Prince Naruhito: male or female, his daughter or his nephew? In the heat of these discussions, it has usually been overlooked that if the Crown Prince should fail in his extremely challenging task, the question of “Who will come after him?” might be rendered completely obsolete!

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