There has been an emperor in Japan for more than 15 centuries, making the Chrysanthemum Throne the world’s oldest monarchy. On Tuesday, Emperor Akihito will step down, yielding to his eldest son in the first abdication in 200 years. InEpisode 1of this series, Akihito was the 12-year-old prince of a nation defeated in war. His story continues here.
Isao Chinen was biding his time, deep inside the island cave, waiting for the dignitary to arrive.
For six days, he and a fellow conspirator stayed out of sight, surviving on canned food, chocolate and biscuits. On the seventh, they huddled over a transistor radio to follow the news as the visitor approached.
Mr. Chinen was 25, a law student who had dropped out of university for this mission. Emerging from the cave that morning, in a khaki jumpsuit and a black helmet, he lit a Molotov cocktail, raised his arm high in the air and flung it at his target — Crown Prince Akihito.
“Down with the emperor!” he shouted. “Go home, Crown Prince!”
It was the summer of 1975, and Akihito had just landed in Okinawa. He was 41 and facing the hard question of the monarchy’s purpose in modern Japan. The trip would become the start of what would be a hallmark of his reign: a long campaign to repent for the nation’s wartime sins.
Three decades earlier, Okinawa had been the scene of one of the bloodiest battles of the Second World War, a nightmare that lasted more than 80 days and involved hundreds of thousands of troops on land, sea and air. It was the last stand of the Imperial Army, which deployed kamikaze pilots by the hundreds to repel the Allied invasion.
The fighting claimed the lives of 95,000 Japanese soldiers and 12,500 American personnel, but also nearly 100,000 civilians — about a quarter of Okinawa’s population — including teenagers forced to take up arms and entire families ordered by Japanese soldiers to commit suicide rather than surrender.
For the next 27 years, the United States governed Okinawa, building military bases, using them in its wars in Korea and Vietnam, even deploying nuclear weapons to the island south of mainland Japan despite local opposition.
Neither Emperor Hirohito nor any other member of the royal family dared visit. Imagine the intensity of public sentiment, then, during Akihito’s trip, three years after Okinawa returned to Japanese control.
“I wanted the emperor to apologize,” Mr. Chinen, now 68, recalled recently. Like many, he blamed Hirohito for extending the war by refusing to surrender sooner. Going after the crown prince, he said, was just a way to get to the emperor.
Akihito had not come alone. At his side was his wife, Princess Michiko.
They had been married 16 years, after meeting on a tennis court and getting engaged over the objections of Japan’s traditionalists, including Akihito’s mother, Empress Nagako. Michiko was the daughter of a wealthy industrialist, but her family was not of noble birth, which made her the first commoner to marry into the imperial family in centuries.
Part of their wedding had been televised — a first — and the couple became celebrities and symbols of the new Japan. They were likable, urbane, athletic and spoke English, and they soon had three children, two boys and a girl. While the emperor was rarely seen in public, the crown prince and princess were beginning to redefine what it meant to be royals in Japan.
On that summer day in Okinawa, they had just laid white chrysanthemums at a memorial when the Molotov cocktail exploded in front of them. Security officers quickly pulled the couple away from the fire, then rushed them back to their motorcade.
Mr. Chinen, who was arrested and spent 30 months in prison, said he had never intended to hurt Akihito. “I wanted to shock and astonish him,” he said.
Given the security breach, there must have been talk of canceling the rest of the visit. But Akihito and Michiko pressed on.
Hiroaki Yamashiro, who photographed Mr. Chinen holding the firebomb aloft in front of the royal couple, recalled watching the prince later in the day at Okinawa’s peace memorial museum and thinking, “This is not something that a regular human could do.”
That night, Akihito issued an unexpected statement from his hotel, referring to Okinawa as the only battlefield in Japan “where residents were dragged into a great number of miserable sacrifices in the last war.”
“When thinking of the victims and their bereaved families,” he wrote, “I’m filled with sorrow and bitter grief.”
Okinawa was just the beginning. After becoming emperor when his father died in 1989, he took that same message of contrition across Asia.
Akihito traveled to China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Palau, the Philippines, Saipan, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam — all places that had suffered from Japan’s wartime aggression.
At every stop, he honored Japan’s war dead while also paying tribute to its victims. At every stop, he spoke of peace, promising his nation would never repeat the horrors of war.
Though many said it was not enough, his pacifist message helped rehabilitate Japan’s reputation abroad. At home, opinion was divided.
With the end of the American occupation, a fault line had emerged in Japan over how to think about the war. Some on the right sought to minimize the Imperial Army’s actions, and derided Akihito’s “apology tour,” arguing that Japan had apologized enough.
A planned visit to Pearl Harbor in 1994 was derailed by nationalist protests. Akihito laid a wreath at a war monument a few miles from the site of the Japanese attack instead.
Under the Constitution, the emperor is barred from participating in politics. Akihito nevertheless served as a check on Japan’s far right. As traditionalists, they revered the monarchy. Yet they chafed at his refusal to let the nation forget its past.
In 2015, Prime Minister Shinzo Abepushed through legislationthat opened the door to allowing the Japanese military to fight in foreign conflicts. The same year, Akihito added a phrase to hisannual addresson the anniversary of Japan’s surrender.
“Reflecting on our past and bearing in mind the feelings of deep remorse,” he said, “I earnestly hope that the ravages of war will never be repeated.”
The “deep remorse” was new, and it seemed an unmistakable rebuke of Mr. Abe. He has repeated the phrase every year since.
The fate of the monarchy hangs on a marriage proposal.
Makiko Inoue contributed reporting.