Emperor Akihito, in traditional attire, attends a Shinto ceremony
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"Although Japanese tradition dates the country's first emperor to 660 BC, written records place the first hereditary head of a unified state early in the fifth century AD. The current emperor, Akihito, who is also head priest of the country’s Shinto religion, is 125th in a line of descendants of the Japanese imperial family, most of whom held semi-divine status.
After WWII, Akihito’s father, Emperor Hirohito, renounced the god-like association of Japanese emperors, and aimed to promote a more human side to the imperial family. He made public appearances and allowed reports on his personal life to be published, something which had previously been forbidden. Hirohito became the country's first monarch to travel abroad, and broke with tradition in allowing his son to marry a commoner – today’s Empress Michiko.
Consistently behind the throne, however, protecting and upholding centuries-old traditions and rituals, has been the Imperial Household Agency, a unit responsible for every aspect of running the palace. The rigid nature of the conservative Agency, which is noted for its secrecy, has been cited in both the slow modernisation of the monarchy and the difficulties those who have married into the family have experienced. It is an assessment those at the Agency, a staid, elderly male establishment, tend to disagree with.