Emperor Naruhito of Japan sits at the head of the world’s oldest continuous monarchy. The Chrysanthemum Throne has, according to Japanese legend, reigned over the island nation since it was founded in 660BC, and its current occupant is the 126th monarch of the land, an astonishing achievement when one considers the fact that Queen Elizabeth II is the 61st ruler of England and Britain.
The Japanese Emperor has historically been viewed as a divine being, believed to be descended from the Shinto deity Amaterasu. Although the Imperial figurehead was stripped of much of their powers following the Second World War, the Emperor still occupies a special place in the heart of his people, a symbol of unity and a particular era of the nation’s ongoing history. As such, when Naruhito ascended the throne in 2019, more than half a million petty criminals were pardoned to symbolise the opportunity for citizens to cleanse their spirits and start anew.
Naruhito himself is an intriguing figure, with a history of breaking new ground for Japanese royalty, beginning with his upbringing. Traditionally, the children of the Emperor and Empress are sent away for their childhood, but Naruhito was raised by his parents along with his two siblings. He was also the first Japanese royal to study abroad when he undertook a degree in history at Oxford University in Britain. His fascination with history is centred around a particularly niche and unassuming topic: roads.
It is said that this rather unorthodox passion was sparked during his childhood when he came upon the remains of an ancient roadway in the palace grounds, but it is a passion that he pursued through his bachelors and masters education. Whilst studying at Oxford he wrote his thesis on the navigation and traffic of the river Thames in the 18th century, but his interest in roads, as well as his other hobbies, gives a deeper insight into his attitudes towards the role of royalty in the modern world.
Speaking about his lifelong fascination with roads, Naruhito philosophised that, “On roads you can go to the unknown world. Since I have been leading a life where I have few chances to go out freely, roads are a precious bridge to the unknown world, so to speak.” Such candid explanation of one’s innermost thoughts is rare for a royal, but his words echo what many members of regal households must feel, speaking to the duality of the throne as both advantageous and limiting, as both leader of and subject to, the will of the people. Naruhito is also reported to have given up his practice of the violin in favour of the viola, saying that the former is “too much of a leader, too prominent.”