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New Rulers Bring Royal Family Closer to Ordinary Japanese

Japan's new Emperor Naruhito and new Empress Masako are driven to Imperial Palace May 1, 2019. (AP Photo/Koji Sasahara)
Japan's new Emperor Naruhito and new Empress Masako are driven to Imperial Palace May 1, 2019. (AP Photo/Koji Sasahara)
Japan's New Rulers Bring Royal Family Closer to Ordinary Japanese
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Japanese Emperor Naruhito and Empress Masako are bringing changes to one of the world’s oldest royal families.

The two have spoken with foreign visitors in English. They laugh with children and even play with dogs.

They are Japan’s first emperor and empress to have earned university degrees. They speak several languages and have years of experience of living overseas. At one time, the future emperor even washed his own clothes.

Six months after starting their official duties, they appear to be making Japan’s royal family more international and bringing it closer to the lives of average citizens.

They have also surprised many Japanese who worried they might have trouble taking the place of Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko. Many were worried about Empress Masako, who has struggled for years with what officials call an “adjustment disorder.”

“Though the previous emperor and empress were seen as being close to the people, these two seem even closer,” said Hideya Kawanishi. He is an assistant history professor at Nagoya University.

Emperor Naruhito is the first Japanese ruler to be cared for by his mother instead of being raised by nurses and teachers. His parents made efforts to give him a normal childhood, including sending him to school with food for lunch.

He earned a degree from Gakushuin University where he studied water systems. He then spent two years at the University of Oxford, which he said were some of the best years of his life. He later married Masako Owada, a diplomat, following objections to his choice from officials.

The two have one daughter, 17-year-old Aiko who, as a woman, cannot take the Chrysanthemum Throne.

The royal couple’s overseas experience was evident when they held a dinner for U.S. President Donald Trump soon after they took power. They spoke to Trump and his wife, Melania, in English, only later agreeing to use an interpreter because of official rules.

The emperor and empress speak English so well, it is clear they have lived internationally, Kawanishi said. The couple seems a world away from the traditional behavior of the past.

Emperor Naruhito has agreed to have his picture taken with members of the public while traveling overseas. In Japan, he and his wife recently laughed with children and played with dogs during a visit to a dog shelter.

“This is not something you could imagine the previous imperial couple ever doing, at least not so naturally,” Kawanishi said.

Worries have faded

Empress Masako’s struggles with her adjustment disorder and official duties. She lived a very private life for the past 10 years, but now she is an empress with a quick smile. The Japanese public seems to have forgotten about her health issues.

“Of course, her health is a mental issue so there are ups and downs, but worries have rather faded,” said Hidehiko Kasahara, a professor at Keio University who specializes in royal issues.

Empress Masako may have more responsibilities, but taking the throne may also give her more freedom because she is now the empress.

“The fact that she can act as she wants means there is less stress. Rather, it’s a plus for her recovery,” Kasahara said.

For now, she and the emperor appear to be moving slowly as they take on their official duties.

I'm Susan Shand.

The Reuters News Agency reported this story. Susan Shand adapted it for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

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Words in This Story

emperor – n. a man who rules an empire

royal – adj. of or relating to rulers

degree – n. a special recognition given to a student after completing a program of study

adjustment – n. a small change that improves something or makes it work better

previousadj. former

nursen. someone who cares for the sick or young children

throne – n. a royal seat

interpreter – n. one who translate from one language to another

fadev. to lose freshness or strength