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Emperor Naruhito and Empress Masako waving from a car© Takashi Aoyama

Inside the Japanese royal family tree – the Imperial House explained

The Imperial House is the oldest royal house in existence

Matthew Moore
Online News Writer & Diversity and Inclusion Lead
May 31, 2024
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Japan's Imperial House is the oldest royal house in existence, dating back to 660 BC. Due to its extensive history, the role of the monarch, known as an 'emperor', has changed throughout history.

The Emperor of Japan has been both a ceremonial ruler, like King Charles, and an imperial ruler, much like the royals of medieval times. However, unlike many monarchs over the world, since the 12th century, the emperor has not overseen the military. The current guise of the royal family is of a ceremonial nature with the enactment of the 1947 constitution.

WATCH: All you need to know about the Japanese royal family

Despite its ancient history, some of the early emperors have been disputed, with many of them viewed as legendary figures as opposed to genuine historical figures. Some historians have claimed the first verified emperor was Emperor Kinmei, the 29th ruler of the country.

Although traditionally, it is men who rule Japan, there has been the occasional empress and out of roughly 100 emperors, there have been nine empresses. However, following the 1947 constitution, it was ruled that only men would inherit the throne, and women would lose their place in the imperial line should they marry outside the royal family.

But how much do you know of the current Imperial House? Read on to find out all you need to know…

Family tree

The Japanese royal family tree© HELLO!
The Japanese royal family tree

Emperor Akihito

Emperor Akihito waving© Jun Sato
Akihito abdicated in 2019

Born on 23 December 1933, Emperor Akihito is the former Emperor of Japan having ruled from 1989 until his abdication in 2019. Akihito is the son of Emperor Shōwa and Empress Kōjun, who ruled Japan during World War II, with the country forming part of the 'Axis of Evil'.

Akihito was the fifth child of Shōwa and Kōjun, having four older sisters: Shigeko Higashikuni, Princess Hisa, Kazuko Takatsukasa and Atsuko Ikeda. The former ruler also has a younger brother, Prince Hitachi, and a younger sister, Takako Shimazu.

The royal took the name Prince Tsugu during his youth and was evacuated from Tokyo during World War II due to the American military campaign. Due to agnatic primogeniture rules, Akihito was the heir apparent from his birth, although his investiture as Crown Prince didn't come until a month before his 19th birthday. One of his first duties as Crown Prince was to attend the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.

In August 1957, Akihito met Michiko Shōda on a tennis court, however, due to her seemingly low class and Catholic background, there was no public enthusiasm for his potential bride. However, with the help of King Baudouin of Belgium, Akihito convinced his family to agree to the union and the pair married on 10 April 1959. The pair have welcomed three children: Emperor Naruhito, Crown Prince Fumihito and Sayako Kuroda.

Akihito ascended to the throne on 7 January 1989 following the death of his father, and while he was banned from making political statements, he issued statements of remorse to several Asian nations that had been invaded by Japan during his father's reign.

During his reign, the royal did his best to bring the Imperial House closer to the Japanese public and made sure to visit all 47 prefectures of Japan. While abdications of emperors had been commonplace, many modern rulers died on the throne, however on 13 July 2016, NHK reported that Akihito was considering abdication due to his advancing age, something he referenced in a speech on 8 August 2016.

On 19 May 2017, the Japanese government passed a bill allowing Akihito to abdicate, and in December 2017, the then Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, confirmed that Akihito would abdicate on 30 April 2019, with Emperor Naruhito succeeding him the day after. His reign was known as Heisei, and Akihito will take the name of Emperor Heisei when he dies.

The royal has had several health issues throughout his years and underwent surgery for prostate cancer in 2003 and had a heart bypass surgery in 2012. In 2018, Akihito suffered nausea and dizziness and collapsed in 2020, he was diagnosed with heart failure in 2022.

Empress Michiko

Empress Michiko waving from a car© Aflo/Shutterstock
Michiko wasn't thought to be a suitable match for Akihito

Born as Michiko Shōda on 20 October 1934, Empress Michiko ruled as Empress of Japan alongside Akihito from 1989 to 2019. She was the second child of her family, with her father being the president of the Nisshin Flour Milling Company.

Michiko was born into a wealthy family and so her parents were very selective about her potential suitors, however, in 1957 she met Crown Prince Akihito on a tennis court. Due to her status as a commoner and a Catholic, there were many opponents of her courtship with the Japanese royal, including Akihito's mother, Empress Kōjun. They married on 10 April 1959 and welcomed three children: Emperor Naruhito, Crown Prince Fumihito and Sayako Kuroda.

The couple's family proved to break royal traditions, with the pair choosing to raise their children instead of sending them to royal tutors and Michiko chose to breastfeed with her children. Following Akihito's abdication, Michiko became the Empress Emerita and regularly played instruments alongside her children and she has published a set of poems and children's book, which translates as My First Mountain Climb.

Media pressure and alleged negative comments from her mother-in-law gave her mental breakdowns and in the 1960s she lost her voice for seven months. In 2007, she cancelled several engagements due to mouth ulcers, nosebleeds and intestinal bleeding. She underwent breast cancer surgery in 2019 and in 2022 was diagnosed with deep vein thrombosis.

Prince Hitachi

Prince Hitachi waving© KIMIMASA MAYAMA/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock
Prince Hitachi has researched cell division

Born on 28 November 1935, Prince Hitachi is the sixth child of Emperor Shōwa and Empress Kōjun and is third in line to the Chrysanthemum Throne. He is the younger brother of former Emperor Akihito. In his youth, Hitachi was known as Prince Yoshi.

Like his older brother, Hitachi was evacuated from Tokyo in World War II and upon his return he did an undergraduate degree in chemistry before becoming a research associate at the Japanese Foundation for Cancer Research, where he researches cell division.

On 30 September 1964, Hitachi walked down the aisle with Princess Hanako, a fellow member of the Japanese Imperial House. The pair have no children and there were debates in 2021 about whether the couple should be allowed to adopt another member of the Imperial House in order to keep the line of succession going.

On 1 March 2023, Hitachi was hospitalised with a fever and was subsequently diagnosed with urethral stones. A month later he was hospitalised again with a urinary tract infection before being discharged.

Emperor Naruhito

Emperor Naruhito smiling in a suit and tie© Chesnot
Naruhito became Emperor of Japan in 2019

Born on 23 February 1960, Emperor Naruhito is the current Emperor of Japan and the oldest child of Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko. He became heir apparent to the Chrysanthemum Throne when he was 29 following the death of his grandfather, Emperor Shōwa.

At the age of four, Naruhito was enrolled in an elite Japanese school, graduating in 1982 with a degree in history; the ruler credited his fascination with the subject to his discovery of an ancient roadway on palace grounds during his youth. He later studied at Oxford and would go on to meet many members of European royal families, and during a party for Spain's Infanta Elena in 1986, he met Masako Owada.

Naruhito immediately began pursuing her, although his family disapproved of the match, and it took three proposals before Masako agreed to marry him. On 9 June 1993, the pair married. The couple share a daughter, Princess Aiko, who was born in 2001.

Naruhito succeeded his father, Akihito, at midnight on 1 May 2019 following his abdication. His rule is known as Reiwa, and he will take the name of Emperor Reiwa following his eventual death. His enthronement ceremony took place on 22 October 2019 and their first foreign state visit was to the United Kingdom in 2022.

Empress Masako

Empress Masuko in a blue dress waving© KAZUHIRO NOGI
Empress Masako has spent a lot of time outside of the public eye

Born as Masako Owada on 9 December 1963, Masako is the current Empress of Japan due to her marriage to Emperor Naruhito, who ascended to the throne in 2019. Masako was born to a senior diplomat and former president of the International Court of Justice and was mostly raised in Moscow and New York City. The family continued moving around including stints in Japan, while Masako eventually concluded her education in Boston.

After her education, Masako started working at the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, being one of only 28 of 800 applicants to pass the entrance exams. At a party for Spain's Infanta Elena in November 1986, she met Prince Naruhito, and the Japanese royal became infatuated with her.

There were concerns over her suitability as her maternal grandfather was reportedly partially responsible for a major public health scandal that affected the town of Minamata and caused a major outbreak of Minamata disease. Although Masako initially rejected Naruhito, she accepted his third marriage proposal and the pair wed on 9 June 1993.

Masako sadly suffered a miscarriage in 1999, before giving birth to daughter Aiko in 2001.

Masako lived mostly outside of the public eye between 2004 and 2014 due to mental anguish, that was reportedly caused by not producing a male heir and adjusting to life within the Imperial Family. In 2019, she appeared on a state visit to the United States, speaking with the then US president and First Lady Donald and Melania Trump.

Crown Prince Fumihito

Crown Prince Fumihito in a black suit© Ian MacNicol
Crown Prince Fumihito is currently the heir to the Japanese throne

Born on 30 November 1965, Crown Prince Fumihito is the heir apparent to the Japanese throne with his brother, Emperor Naruhito not producing a male heir. Fumihito was officially named as heir presumptive in November 2020, a year after his brother ascended to the throne. Like other Japanese royals, Fumihito was known by another name in his youth, going by Prince Ayo.

For his education, Fumihito studied law and biological science, pursuing studies in the taxonomy of fish when he went to Oxford and obtaining a PhD in ornithology, the study of birds. His love of wildlife has continued into his royal duties and he serves as the president of the Yamashina Institute for Ornithology and the Japanese Association of Zoological Gardens and Aquariums.

During his undergraduate studies, Fumihito met Kiko Kawashima, the daughter of an economics professor and the duo walked down the aisle on 29 June 1990. The pair have welcomed three children: Mako Komuro, Princess Kako and Prince Hisahito.

Crown Princess Kiko

Crown Princess Kiko in a black suit© Patrick van Katwijk
Crown Princess Kiko is fluent in sign language

Born as Kiko Kawashima on 11 September 1966, Kiko is the Crown Princess of Japan after Crown Prince Fumihito was declared heir presumptive in 2020. Kiko was brought up in Philadelphia and Vienna before moving back to Japan in 1972.

It was during her undergraduate degree in humanities that she met her future husband, Crown Prince Fumihito. The pair's engagement was announced on 12 September 1989, but it was delayed for a year due to the death of Fumihito's grandfather, Emperor Shōwa.

The duo married on 29 June 1990 and they have welcomed three children: Mako Komura, Princess Kako and Prince Hisahito.

Kiko is a skilled sign language interpreter and is perfectly fluid in Japanese sign language.

Sayako Kuroda

Sayako Kuroda and Yoshiki Kuroda walking through a flower garden© AFP
Sayako left the Imperial House to marry Yoshiki Kuroda

Born on 18 April 1969, Sayako Kuroda is the youngest child and only daughter of Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko. During her youth, she was known as Princess Nori.

Like her brother, Sayako had a keen interest in wildlife and she became a research associate at the Yamashima Institute for Ornithology and she specialises in the study of kingfishers.

On 15 November 2005, Sayako married urban designer Yoshiki Kuroda, who was a longtime friend of her brother, Fumihito. Under Imperial House tradition, Sayako had to relinquish her title, membership of the family and state allowance upon her marriage to Yoshiki.

As a private citizen in 2012, Sayako became a high priestess at the Ise Grand Shrine alongside her aunt, Atsuko Ikeda, before replacing her as supreme priestess on 19 June 2017.

Princess Aiko

Princess Aiko in a white coat, outfit and tiara© Yuichi Yamazaki
There had been talks Aiko could ascend to the throne

Born on 1 December 2001, Princess Aiko is the only child of Emperor Naruhito and Empress Masako. Aiko's birth, and Naruhito and Masako not producing a male heir, prompted plenty of debate about whether the laws around succession should change to absolute primogeniture as opposed to agnatic, which would allow Aiko to succeed to the throne. However, following the birth of Crown Prince Fumihito's son, these discussions were dropped.

Aiko's childhood title is Princess Toshi, and her personal naming broke from tradition, with Naruhito and Masako choosing her name instead of her grandfather, Akihito. Her education was briefly interrupted as the young royal was bullied by boys in her class and when she returned to school, she was accompanied by her mother. She later majored in Japanese language and literature, graduating on 20 March 2024.

Mako Komura

Princess Mako in a grey outfit© Jean Catuffe
Mako married Kei Komuro in 2021

Born on 23 October 1991, Mako Komura is the eldest child of Crown Prince Fumihito and Crown Princess Kiko. Like many members of her family, Mako studied abroad at times including in Dublin, the University of Edinburgh and the University of Leicester.

Mako unintentionally became an internet icon due to photos of herself published in 2004 in which she was seen wearing a Sailor fuku.

While studying at the International Christian University in Tokyo, Mako met Kei Komuro and their engagement was announced in 2017, the wedding was initially delayed over a monetary dispute. The pair married on 26 October 2021, and as per custom, Mako severed ties with the Imperial House following the marriage. She and Kei subsequently moved to New York.

Princess Kako

Princess Kako in a pink outfit© Tomohiro Ohsumi
Princess Kako used to be a figure skater

Born on 29 December 1994, Princess Kako is the second child of Crown Prince Fumihito and Crown Princess Kiko. During her youth, Kako was a talented figure skater and even represented the Meiji-Jingu Gaien Figure Skating Club in 2007.

Kako has studied at Gakushuin University, the International Christian University, Trinity College Dublin and the University of Leeds. Following her studies, she began working part-time at the Japanese Federation of the Deaf, something close to her mother's heart, who is a sign language interpreter.

Prince Hisahito

Prince Hisahito in a school uniform© JIJI PRESS/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock
Prince Hisahito is second in line to the throne

Born on 6 September 2006, Prince Hisahito is the youngest child of Crown Prince Fumihito and Crown Princess Kiko and is second in line to the Chrysanthemum Throne. Before his birth, there were no males of his generation which had prompted discussions about changing the inheritance of the Japanese throne to absolute primogeniture.

READ: Medical mystery as Japan's Crown Princess Kiko left unable to eat 'normal meals' - report

RELATED: How Princess Mako's love story rocked Japan's royal family

The young prince currently studies at the University of Tsukuba Senior High School.

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Line of succession

  1. Crown Prince Fumihito
  2. Prince Hisahito
  3. Prince Hitachi

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