Japan · Pocket Profiles

Pocket Profile – Empress Emerita Michiko

Those who only know the Empress as an elegant and always appropriate consort probably don’t realize how revolutionary her union with the future emperor was. Read on to learn about the intellectual and cultured force that is Michiko.

She was born Michiko Shōda (正田美智子, Shōda Michiko) in 1934, the second child of a wealthy Japanese couple. Her birth family was intellectual as well as rich. Her father was the president and honorary chairman of the Nisshan Flour Milling Company, a company her grandfather founded. Among her extended family were several well known Japanese academics, including the one-time president of the University of Osaka.

Life at a Glance

  • Michiko’s family was Roman Catholic, a religious minority in Japan. She attended Catholic schools from junior high to her graduation. She graduated, with the highest honors, from the University of the Sacred Heart in Tokyo.
  • She has degree in English literature, and speaks English fluently. She writes poetry, and has contributed to many works and also translated many books.
  • She was taught by Irish nuns throughout her childhood, and developed a keen interest in Ireland and its culture as a result. She can speak some Gaelic and play the Irish harp. She is also a competent pianist.
  • Michiko had many, many suitors. She was beautiful, rich and accomplished, so it was no surprise when Crown Prince Akihito played doubles tennis against her that he was immediately smitten. What was surprising was that he pursued marriage with the commoner, and that she agreed to take on the daunting task of entering into the Imperial family. Although both partners had many other easier options, it was the love match that prevailed.

The famous tennis partners are shown below.

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Below, Akihto and Michiko in their wedding finery, both the western dress and traditional Japanese garb.

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  • The “Michi Bloom” drove some of Japan’s post World War II economic development. Sales of televisions soared in the run up to her wedding. The ceremony was viewed by 15 million people and almost a half a million were on site to watch the procession.
  • Would we even have a royal story without the obligatory “trouble with the in laws” bullet point? Empress Nagako, Akihito’s mother, was violently opposed to the match. Her daughter-in-law was a religious minority, and a commoner to boot. The Empress could not stop the wedding but it was said she and her courtiers continued to vigorously bully Michiko well into the first few years of her marriage.
  • The stress of life within the Imperial family was very real, both from internal pressures and from press scrutiny. On at least two occasions MIchiko lost consciouness and collapsed, periods referred to as her “deep silence”. During her recoveries she was unable to speak for several months. In the nineties she was treated for psychological stress, which had several physical manifestations, including ulcers and hair loss.
  • She and Akihito had three children, including the current Emperor Naruhito and Crown Prince Fumihito. Contrary to Imperial tradition, she took an active role in their upbringing. She breastfed them, read to them, hugged them, and left detailed instructions with the nannies when she had to be absent. She contributed to a book about her child-rearing philosophies called Naru-Chan Kempo (The Naruhito Constitution).

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  • Despite the pressures, her marriage has been a happy one. The couple is said to be very devoted to one another and to their duties to their nation.
  • Michiko was Crown Princess from 1959 to 1989, Empress from 1989 to 2019, and Empress Emerita from 2019 to the present.

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Court Dress and Other Dress

The operative word for Michiko’s style was restrained. Her elegant capes were her trademark when wearing western dress. They provided a cultural nod to Japan. She was also known for her beautiful kimonos, worn for more traditional events. The Empress retained her figure throughout her life and was always considered a sophisticated presence on the sartorial scene.

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Let us see your favorite Empress Michiko moments in the comments.