Dressed in a tailcoat, Naruhito stood in front of the throne. Imperial chamberlains presented him with two of Japan’s sacred treasures — a sword representing valor and a jewel representing benevolence — as well as the Privy Seal and the Great Seal of Japan, the seals of the emperor and state, respectively.
Enclosed in cases, the sword and stone were then placed on stands made of Japanese cypress. A third treasure, a mirror — representing wisdom — is kept at Ise Grand Shrine, the holiest Shinto site in Japan. The treasures are only ever seen by the emperor and high priests, and no photographs or drawings of them exist: The ceremony to formally inherit the Imperial Regalia marks Naruhito’s accession to the throne.
There was no sound apart from footsteps ringing out on the polished wooden floor, little gold and no marble or trumpets, just a simple ceremony in an austere room, with plenty of bowing.
Naruhito’s accession marks the start of the Reiwa era in Japan, a term taken from ancient Japanese poetry and translated as “beautiful harmony.” But his own family circumstance is a constant reminder of the gender inequality at the heart of the conservative imperial system.
Naruhito and his wife, now known as Empress Masako, had a daughter, Princess Aiko, in 2001. Under Japanese law, Aiko is not allowed to inherit the throne, and Masako is thought to have come under intense pressure from within the palace to produce a male heir.
Masako reluctantly gave up a potentially high-flying career in Japan’s diplomatic service to become his bride in 1993. She later fell ill with what was diagnosed as stress-related “adjustment disorder,” largely withdrawing from public life for a decade.
In a further sign of entrenched attitudes and traditions, female members of the imperial family were not invited to attend Wednesday’s first ceremony, although they attended later when Naruhito returned to the throne room to make a brief speech. The lone woman attending the first ceremony was the first in modern history — a government minister, Satsuki Katayama.
“When I think about the important responsibility I have assumed. I am filled with a sense of solemnity,” Naruhito said in his first public address marking his accession. “I swear that I will reflect deeply on the course followed by his majesty, the emperor emeritus, and bear in mind the path trodden by past emperors, and will devote myself to self-improvement.”
Naruhito’s father, Akihito, now known as emperor emeritus, abdicated in a similar ceremony in the same room Tuesday in the first such succession in Japan in two centuries.
Naruhito expressed his “heartfelt respect and appreciation” for his father’s comportment as emperor, praising the way he shared in the “joys and sorrows” of the Japanese people and showed “profound compassion.”
“I sincerely pray for the happiness of the people and the further development of the nation as well as the peace of the world,” he said.
Naruhito upset traditionalists — but impressed many others — by launching a passionate defense of his wife in 2004, explaining how she had given up a diplomatic career but since found it hard to get approval to travel abroad. She had “totally exhausted herself” trying to adjust to her new role, while some people were trying “to negate her career and her personality,” he said.
After Naruhito, the imperial family has only one young male heir — his 12-year-old nephew, Hisahito — and the government says it will soon reconsider the question of whether to allow women to inherit the throne to save the succession. Naruhito has also spoken out in favor of fathers becoming more involved in their children’s upbringing, something that is still relatively rare in conservative Japan.
His mother, Michiko, would always walk a few steps behind her husband. But Naruhito has been seen hiking in the mountains with his wife and his daughter at his side.
“He is clearly a man who is respectful of strong women and a family man who adores his daughter,” said Shihoko Goto, a senior associate at the Wilson Center’s Asia Program. “Yet one of the biggest challenges he will face ... will be the question of succession.”
“His only child will not be able to succeed him precisely because she is a girl,” she said. “As Japan looks to bolster the role the imperial family can play both at home and abroad, the question of gender equality will continue to be a thorn in its side.”
Yukiya Chikashige, a veteran journalist and expert on the imperial family, noted what he called the new emperor’s “humble attitude,” which he said was likely to be a hallmark of his rule, along with a “global perspective.”
But Naotaka Kimizuka, a professor at Kanto Gakuin University in Kanagawa, said it was important Naruhito build on his father’s legacy by remaining visible to the people.
“Even though Emperor Akihito has become closer to the people, the imperial household still remains distant for many,” he said. “In the new era, to remain supported by the people and especially by young people, which is essential for the constitutional monarchy to be sustained as it is, the emperor needs to be visible, just as royal households are in Europe.”
After completing a history degree at Tokyo’s Gakushuin University, Naruhito became the first member of Japan’s royal family to study overseas, spending two years at Oxford University’s Merton College, where his research focused on transportation along the River Thames.
He has since spoken on water management at global forums and is expected to bring not only an international outlook but also a focus on the environment and climate change to his new role.
“He needs to come out from under the very long shadow of Akihito. And I think he’s going to make climate change his signature issue,” said Jeff Kingston of Tokyo’s Temple University. “He has indicated that the monarchy must shift with the changing times, with the changing wind. His view is the monarchy isn’t just the state repository of tradition, but that it needs to remain relevant.”
Kimizuka noted that Masako had already expressed concern about issues such as child poverty, child abuse and climate change, and might get involved in helping to address them, as members of European royal families have also done. “These are some of the activities that the imperial household needs to be doing to stay visible and become closer to the people, and to be supported,” he said.
Akihito was a much-loved figure. With his wife, he humanized the role of the emperor — once viewed here as a living god — by reaching out to vulnerable members of society and victims of natural disasters, including the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that killed nearly 20,000 people. In a break with long-held customs, he looked ordinary people in the eye when talking to them.
But Akihito’s personable style did not please Japan’s ultraconservatives, who felt he undermined imperial authority with ordinary gestures — such as kneeling to chat with evacuees after a volcano erupted in Nagasaki in 1991. Nor were they thrilled by his efforts to help Japan reconcile itself with its neighbors and its own wartime past.
A more elaborate enthronement ceremony for Naruhito will take place Oct. 22 and will be attended by royalty and dignitaries from around the world.