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Emperor Akihito’s tuberculosis battle

  March 20, 2009 at 1:15 pm by

Prince Akihito smoking

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At an event celebrating the 70th anniversary of the Japan Anti-Tuberculosis Association in Tokyo on Wednesday, Emperor Akihito of Japan revealed that he had, in his youth, been battling for four years with tuberculosis. Akihito said he was diagnosed with the infectious illness in December 1953, just days before his 20th birthday. After taking new medicines, such as streptomycin and hydrazide, he finally recovered in September 1957. The fact that the emperor had been suffering from this disease has, to this day, remained completely unknown. It has been the very first time for Akihito to publicly talk about it.

Taking a short look at how the emperor has passed his childhood and youth, and considering the fact that psychological threats and challenges are known to possibly trigger a person’s latent tuberculosis bacilli, there seems some reason to believe that this has been the case here. Little Prince Akihito had been separated from his family at age three, and from then on, he saw his parents, at the utmost, once a week. (It was the custom for the heir to the throne to be raised apart from his family.) Nearly his entire childhood was spent in wartime. To perk up the home front, the government turned the crown prince’s tenth birthday into a jubilee-like national celebration. His fifteenth birthday, meanwhile, was to show how radically things had changed in five years: On December 23, 1948, seven Japanese war criminals were executed by the Allied Forces, and, accordingly, all birthday festivities for the crown prince were cancelled.

Although Akihito’s father, Emperor Hirohito – who is held by most historians today to have been, at least, partly responsible for the war – had been wise enough as to refuse his ministers’ wishes to let the crown prince become symbolically commissioned in the armed forces, this did, of course, not mean that the young prince could have remained “uncontaminated” by the ultranationalist and militaristic views of the time. These had been all-powerful during the war and had made the tenno appear as complete ruler-by-divine-right of a Japan that, as they saw it, was fated to govern the whole of Asia. As heir to the Japanese throne, Prince Akihito had been raised to be worshipped as a divine being: immaculate, faultless, remote. The common belief holding the monarch as divine had been integral to Japanese life for nearly two thousand years. How should the prince, being a child, have doubted what he had been taught about his own significance and about Japan’s glory when many men, much elder and wiser than himself, had unhesitatingly followed the path to destruction?

However, after Japan’s defeat, Prince Akihito was obliged, to, somehow, forget as quickly as possible nearly all that he had been taught about his own role and about Japan in general. He found his future position now stripped of all its power and of most of its honours. Both the image and the functions of a politically authoritative emperor-as-godhead were dead. Small wonder that the prince found adjusting to the new situation very difficult. Once, during a lesson that dealt with the new constitutional principles of after-war Japan, he slipped a scrap of paper to his friend Akira Hashimoto that read: “Inherited professions are disgusting, are not they?”

Only after his marriage to the bright and beautiful commoner Michiko Shoda, by which his deep longing for being part of a family again had, at last, been satisfied, Akihito seems to have made his peace with the position in life he had been born for. Within this context, it seems very remarkable indeed that the medicine that cured the body arrived at the same time as the medicine that would cure the soul: just one month before his recovery in September 1957, in August of the same year, Akihito had met his future bride for the very first time…

Read the thread about current events of the imperial couple at TRF here.

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