There has been an emperor in Japan for more than 15 centuries, making the Chrysanthemum Throne the world’s oldest continuous monarchy. On Tuesday, the emperor will step down, yielding to his eldest son in the first abdication in 200 years. This is the family’s story.
We know him as Akihito, the emperor of Japan, a gentle figure who championed peace in a nation devastated by war. But she called him Jimmy.
It was the autumn of 1946, a year after the end of the Second World War, and he was a 12-year-old boy, the crown prince of a defeated land, sitting in an unheated classroom on the outskirts of Tokyo. There, a new American teacher insisted on a more prosaic name for his highness. His father, the wartime emperor, Hirohito, had been revered as a god, but she made clear he never would be.
“In this class, your name is Jimmy,” declared the teacher, Elizabeth Gray Vining, a 44-year-old librarian and children’s book author from Philadelphia.
“No,” Akihito swiftly replied. “I am Prince.”
Mrs. Vining pushed back. She had already given names — Adam, Billy — to several of Akihito’s classmates at Gakushuin, a school for the children of nobility and wealth.
“Yes, you are Prince Akihito,” she said. “That is your real name. But in this class you have an English name. In this class, your name is Jimmy.”
Mrs. Vining waited. The other students glanced at one another nervously. Finally, the crown prince smiled, and the class beamed.
Outside that schoolroom — in a flimsy building with muddy floors — much more than a name hung in the balance.
Only a year had passed since Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the end of a war in which tens of millions of people had been killed, including more than three million Japanese. Tokyo was in ruins, with much of its population living in shanties. Gen. Douglas MacArthur, assigned to lead the American occupation, had established his headquarters in the Dai-Ichi Life Insurance Building — opposite the Imperial Palace.
Would the world’s oldest monarchy survive?
Akihito, a lonely child raised by chamberlains and nursemaids since age 3, had spent the final year of the war outside the city to escape the Allied bombing. Not long after the Nazi surrender, a napalm raid set the imperial compound ablaze.
On a summer morning a few months later, the chamberlains ushered him into a small room in the hotel where they were hiding. His father was on the radio. “The war situation has developed not necessarily to Japan’s advantage,” Emperor Hirohito said, announcing the unconditional surrender. It was the first time the Japanese people had heard his voice.
After the broadcast, Akihito wiped away tears. “I think I must work harder from now on,” he wrote in his diary.
“The chamberlains didn’t know what would happen if the crown prince returned to Tokyo,” recalled Mototsugu Akashi, 85, a classmate who was evacuated from the capital with Akihito. “The Allies were unpredictable. We worried they might kill him.”
In the United States and other Allied nations, pressure mounted for Hirohito to be indicted as a war criminal. Leading intellectuals in Japan called on him to set a moral example by stepping down. Some members of the royal family urged him to abdicate and let young Akihito take the Chrysanthemum Throne under the supervision of a regent. The prince could not be blamed for the war, they argued, and that would limit American leverage over the monarchy and protect it.
MacArthur had other ideas. The brash general enjoyed almost unchecked authority in Japan and, early on, he decided to spare Hirohito — and to use him.
With a presidential run in mind, MacArthur saw the emperor as key to demilitarizing Japan and remaking it as a democratic nation. “He’s a symbol which unites all Japanese,” the general wrote in a secret telegram, warning that a million American soldiers would be needed to subdue the country if Hirohito were put on trial.
And so the royal family escaped prosecution. Others took the fall instead, including one Japanese general who was hanged for the Nanjing Massacre instead of Hirohito’s uncle.
The monarchy, of course, had to change. A new Constitution stripped the emperor of his divine status and made him a figurehead. And Akihito would be groomed as a conduit to transmit the values the Americans intended to reshape Japan.
The Japanese planned to hire an Englishman to tutor the prince but MacArthur’s aides maneuvered to put in an American.
Mrs. Vining was selected in part because she was a Quaker — a circle of Japanese Quakers surrounded the royal family — and a widow. Her husband had died in a car accident, and some thought the tragedy might help her understand Japan’s sorrow.
Then and now, there were people unhappy with her appointment. “Of all the things that America did to postwar Japan, one of the rudest was to provide the crown prince with the woman tutor Vining,” a conservative Japanese critic grumbled decades later.
Mrs. Vining set about her task with stubborn earnestness, sometimes sparring with the chamberlains who surrounded Akihito. “It was recognized that the teaching of English was only a medium for the larger task of opening to the crown prince and others the thought and practice of American democracy,” she recalled in a best-selling memoir.
But it wasn’t easy drilling the notion of equality into the royal pupil. Once, another tutor asked Akihito if he would rather be an ordinary boy. “I don’t know,” he replied. “I’ve never been an ordinary boy.” Another time, Mrs. Vining asked the class what they wanted to be when they grew up. Akihito wrote, “I shall be emperor.”
Even Monopoly was a lesson. On a quiet afternoon in 1949, the tutor invited Akihito and some of his classmates to her home to play the quintessential capitalist board game with a few sons of Allied officials.
Tony Austin, 84, one of Akihito’s playmates that day, recalled that the foreigners had quickly beaten the young Japanese. “It wasn’t fair to play Monopoly with them, really,” he said. “They weren’t really familiar with it.”
The boys worried they had been rude, but Akihito was unruffled. As his new friends noted, the prince was learning to be a good loser.
Makiko Inoue contributed reporting.
Orignially published in NYT.