The man who would probably like to say he is sorry, but can't

Protocol must take precedence for Emperor Akihito, writes Steve Boggan
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The Independent Online
IF YOU were to look for a figure to compare with the Prince of Wales - the angst, the apparent loneliness, the outsider with a soft inside - your first choice would probably not be Emperor Akihito.

There are, however, similarities borne out of accidents of birth and a desire, sometimes not very well communicated, to be closer to the people. It is not something often said in the midst of war veterans' demonstrations, but the Emperor is a highly sensitive man who might like nothing better than to apologise in the most unambiguous of terms for the treatment endured by British prisoners of war in the Second World War.

It is not necessarily a reluctance on his part that prevents the words "I am sorry" from passing his lips. Quite simply, the Japanese constitution forbids him from making any political statements. His role, as one commentator once put it, is to be, not to do.

Akihito - his name means "shining wisdom" - is the latest emperor in a dynasty that can be traced back 2,700 years. He was born in December 1933, the fourth child of Emperor Hirohito, who had previously fathered girls.

Recognised in Japan as a demi-God who walks between Heaven and Earth, the Emperor lives a life of pampered remoteness in a 200-acre palace in Tokyo. He has hundreds of staff to attend to him and to his wife, Michiko, including food tasters - to check for poison - and faeces inspectors.

As a three-year-old, Akihito was separated from his parents and sent to another palace in Tokyo where he lived with tutors and played with friends who were hand-picked and carefully examined for signs of disease. He travelled everywhere in a chauffeur-driven Mercedes with armour-plated windows, and saw his father and mother only on Sundays.

During the war, he was evacuated to the countryside for long periods and endured even more separation from his parents.

Shortly after the Japanese surrender, Hirohito wrote to him: "Let me tell you why Japan was defeated ... Our military men put too much emphasis on spirit, and neglected science." It was a lesson Japan learned well in the subsequent battle for technological supremacy.

In the aftermath of the war, part of the Allies' plans for Hirohito's rehabilitation involved providing a less insular lifestyle for Akihito. He was sent away from his court tutors to the Gaskashuin school which, although elitist, enabled him to mingle with other students. However, former schoolmates remember him as a withdrawn and lonely student.

In 1953, he visited England for the first time for the Queen's coronation. Then, he was invited to visit Newcastle upon Tyne, whose shipyards had built ships for Japan during the Russo-Japanese conflict of 1904-05. That trip was cancelled after complaints from war veterans but he retained an affinity for England which resulted in him sending his sons to Oxford.

As a person, he is variously described as sensitive and caring, realistic enough to be embarrassed about his status as a demi-deity. When he ascended the Chrysanthemum throne in 1990, he was the first to do so as a mortal, Hirohito having renounced his deification as part of the post-war treaty with the Allies.

Akihito has studied marine biology and, in between games of polo and tennis, plants rice seedlings as a hobby, an interest of which Prince Charles would no doubt approve. There are stories of him instructing his motorcade to stop at red lights and of him giving a pensioner a massage while visiting an old folks' home.

Friends describe him as tolerant of others' religious and political views and it is known in Japan that he would like to make an unqualified apology. However, the last time he expressed such views, during a visit to Peking in 1992, he was strongly criticised at home by right-wing politicians for humiliating Japan.

He had said only "I feel deep sorrow", but it was too much for the men with harder hearts than his.

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