By Elaine Lies
TOKYO (Reuters) – Emperor Akihito, who on April 30 will become Japan’s first emperor to abdicate in nearly two centuries, devoted his life to nations affected by his country during World War Two and to Japanese struggling after disasters.
Akihito turned 85 on Dec. 23, has had heart surgery and been treated for prostate cancer, and now sports a hearing aid. He said in 2016 he feared age might make it hard to fulfil his duties.
Some highlights from his time as the first emperor not to be considered divine when he ascended the Chrysanthemum Throne in 1989:
Akihito’s 1959 marriage to Michiko Shoda, the daughter of an industrialist, was the first by an imperial heir to a commoner and was hailed as a symbol of a new Japan. The two met at a tennis club and he proposed marriage over the phone.
The two have been photographed over the years waltzing together in formal clothes and walking by the seaside in anoraks and trousers. On April 10, just weeks before he abdicated, they celebrated their 60th anniversary.
They worked to craft an image of a “middle-class monarchy” and draw the imperial family closer to the people.
All three of their children went to university and married commoners, and the public was informed when prostate cancer was diagnosed in Akihito in 2002 – in contrast to the secrecy around the illness of his father, Emperor Hirohito.
Akihito and Michiko have worked to smooth relations across Asia, which suffered under Japan before and during World War Two, with numerous visits abroad.
In 1992, he became the first Japanese monarch in living memory to visit China, where bitterness over the war runs deep, and said he felt “deep sorrow” about an “unfortunate period in which my country inflicted great suffering on the people of China.”
At a news conference marking his birthday in 2001, he said he felt “a certain kinship” with Korea because one of his ancestors was Korean, an unprecedented statement from a Japanese royal that made front-page headlines in Seoul.
In 2005, the couple went to the island of Saipan, the scene of bloody fighting during World War Two, to pay respects at memorials honouring Japanese, American and Korean war dead.
Akihito has often urged Japan to remember the suffering of the war, comments that have attracted increased attention in recent years as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has appeared to push for a less apologetic tone.
On Aug. 15, 2015, the 70th anniversary of the end of the war, Akihito departed from his usual script to express “deep remorse.” The day before, Abe had expressed “utmost grief” but said future generations should not have to keep apologising.
One of the duties the royal couple embraced was comforting victims of disasters.
In 2011, Akihito took the unprecedented step of addressing the nation in a televised speech after an earthquake and tsunami killed about 20,000 people and triggered the world’s worst nuclear crisis in 25 years.
Akihito has kneeled to talk to evacuees and Michiko has hugged women who lost their homes.
(Reporting and writing by Elaine Lies; Editing by Malcolm Foster and Robert Birsel)