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San Murata is photographed at his home in Port Hope, Ont., on June 23, 2009. Murata will see be reunited for a visit with Japanese Empress Michiko next week when she visits Toronto with the Emperor.Kevin Van Paassen

It was the summer of 1957. Michiko was superb on the courts. Akihito was … so-so. They met for the first time at a tennis club in the wealthy mountain resort town of Karuizawa, a two-hour drive from Tokyo, and they went on to reshape the soul of their country.

San Murata, a 69-year-old painter, jazz violinist and former tennis pro who now lives in Port Hope, Ont., was one of their frequent doubles partners that year. In 10 days, he will come face to face again with the couple who are now Emperor and Empress of Japan as they pass through Toronto on their state visit to Canada. Mr. Murata says he intends his opening words to be: "Hi, do you remember me?"

They may well. Few summers have been more memorable in modern Japanese history.

Crown Prince (as he then was) Akihito's wooing of the stunning and much-pursued Michiko Shoda, daughter of a flour-milling company president, touched off a nationwide tennis craze. Their marriage two years later created what Japanese social scientists still describe as a cultural and economic Michiko-boom.

Mr. Murata first met Ms. Shoda as a teenager. Her family had a summer home at Karuizawa. She was beautiful but difficult to approach, he recalled. She had a steely inner strength and an intensely focused style of tennis playing. "She never," he said, "made a mistake."

Mr. Murata, who emigrated to Canada after visiting Expo 67, was discreet about the Crown Prince's game-style but what has stuck in his mind was the 23-year-old Prince's cool - they played surrounded by hordes of TV cameramen, photographers and gawkers, which made Mr. Murata nervous but never the Crown Prince. Or 22-year-old Ms. Shoda.

The trim, unassuming couple - now in their mid-70s; Emperor and Empress since 1989 - who arrive next Friday in Ottawa for a 12-day visit to Canada have had a profound impact on their country, at a personal cost that at times has made the life of the Windsors look like a cakewalk.

Both have suffered health problems related to mental stress.

They broke centuries-old taboos, sought international forgiveness for Japan's military aggression, risked fracturing Japan's political classes by creating "a monarchy for the masses" - to use political scientist Keiichi Matsushita's label - and watched fissures divide their own family as they wrestled with balancing tradition with modernity.

Akihito has acknowledged that he still struggles to understand what his role should be as the world's only sovereign designated an "emperor." Empress Michiko, in an extraordinary news conference two years ago, spoke of feeling "apprehension and sadness" every day of her life in court.

Their daughter-in-law, Crown Princess Masako, withdrew from public life with a nervous breakdown five years ago that her husband Crown Prince Naruhito blamed on pressures from the imperial household's bureaucracy to force her to conform to traditional behaviour for royal women as persons in the shadows and wombs to be impregnated.

Yet the imperial family has an 80 per cent approval rating from the Japanese public, ahead of the monarchy's 73 per cent approval rating in Britain and its slightly more than 50 per cent approval - depending on what polls you read - in Canada.

Japan's monarchs, beginning with the 45-year rule of the Meiji Emperor in the mid-19th century, had been made symbols of the country's rising power and military expansionism that stretched into the 1940s. They were given the stature of living gods in the state religion of Shintoism.

After the American firebombing of Japan's cities - culminating in the nuclear attacks that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki - and its surrender in 1945, bringing the Second World War to a close, the U.S. occupying administration permitted the monarchy to continue. But it but applied pressure on Emperor Showa, or Hirohito as he was known in the West, to have his son Akihito tutored by an American Christian woman.

Elizabeth Gray Vining was engaged to teach him English, international etiquette, democratic principles and - Ms. Vining being a Quaker - pacifism. The director of the Prince's education, Shinzo Koizumi, a former university president, taught his young charge the maxim that "Heaven never created a man above or below another man" and instructed him to emulate Britain's King George V as a constitutional monarch who placed himself at the service of his people.

As his war-crushed country struggled to rebuild and redefine itself under the chilly scrutiny of a still-hostile world, Akihito resolutely re-created the monarchy as the face of a pacifist, cosmopolitan, outward-looking "New Japan." Michiko, the first commoner to marry into the ancient imperial family, shattered the monarchy's isolation from the people and bonded it to the rising middle class.

Their marriage was ecstatically celebrated by Japan's younger generation and burgeoning middle class. Young women interviewed spoke rapturously of their dreams that they themselves could one day marry royalty. Magazines published every detail they could glean of Michiko's life - including her measurements, a shocking act given that her father-in-law and his ancestors had been considered gods until he was compelled by Japan's U.S. occupiers after the Second World War to deny his deity status.

The Crown Prince's and Princess's eight-kilometre procession through Tokyo in an open carriage - deliberately modelled on the British Royal Family's ceremonial mode of transport - was watched by half a million people and created a rush on the sale of television sets.

Michiko was shown cooking in the palace kitchen, using electrical appliances that women across Japan rushed out to buy. She and her husband - who by tradition had been removed from his parents at age 3 and raised by courtiers - vowed to raise their children on their own. She breast-fed, which appalled Japanese traditionalists. As did a photograph of her skating with Akihito hand-in-hand.

She hugged earthquake survivors, something no member of the royal family had ever done before. He kneeled on the ground beside the victims of an earthquake eruption. He changed the military character of the monarchy and the prewar notion of an authoritarian, hierarchical state headed by the emperor into a middle-class family monarchy cemented with love

Perhaps most important of all, Akihito's choice of Michiko as his bride was seen as a metaphor for Japan's future. A 1958 article about the couple in the mass circulation weekly magazine Sande Mainichi concluded:

"The crown prince and Michiko themselves are probably thinking that they will become the symbol of a Japanese couple. As a result of the crown prince's making a democratic engagement, one can say that Japan's democratization was advanced one step."

However, what the Empress and her two worldly, well-educated daughters-in-law, commoners like herself - Crown Princess Masako, a former diplomat, and Princess Kiko, a psychologist - apparently have never been able to do is free themselves from the heavy patriarchal hand of the court bureaucracy. They have been called prisoners of their palaces.

By the time Masako and Crown Prince Naruhito married in 1993 - after he had proposed to her repeatedly over several years - young Japanese women were telling pollsters they had no interest in curtailing their careers and freedom by marrying into the imperial family.

The Emperor is one of the world's leading taxonomical experts on goby fish, of which more than 2,500 species are found around the world. He has discovered seven new species through, among other things, minute comparisons of their shoulder bones. Two species, Exyrias akihito and Platygobiopsis akihito have been named after him.

The goby is his obsession. Glass-walled aquariums are said to adorn the Imperial Palace in Tokyo. He acquired his interest in marine biology from his father, Emperor Hirohito, and passed it on to his younger son, Prince Akishino.

He has admitted to one major scientific goof. In 1960, he brought back to Japan some bluegill, or bream, a gift from Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, and released them in the palace moats. The foreign fish bred explosively and took over native species - for example, eating the eggs of the indigenous Japanese goby - and are being exterminated.

The Emperor and Empress will stay their first two nights in Canada at the prime minister's residence at Harrington Lake before moving on to Rideau Hall for two nights. They will attend a state dinner Monday night.

On Wednesday they travel to Toronto. Among other events, the Empress, a world-renown expert on children's literature and an author of children's books, will tour the Toronto Public Library's Osborne Collection of children's books.

On Friday, the royal couple travel to Victoria - which the Emperor last visited as a 19-year-old in 1953 en route to London for the Queen's coronation - and on Monday they go to Vancouver. They return to Tokyo the evening of Tuesday, July 14.


Japan's Chrysanthemum Throne: It is the world's oldest hereditary monarchy, dating to 660 BCE if its legendary antecedents are included. Emperor Akihito is considered the 125th tenno, or sovereign, but most historians consider the first 14 to be mythologically uncertain.

Role under Japan's 1947 constitution: Akihito is "the symbol of the state and of the unity of the Japanese people" but, unlike Canada's Queen, he is not head of state and plays no constitutional role in government.

Imperial Household Agency, or Kunaichô: The bureaucratic arm of the prime minister's office manages the duties, schedules and lives of the imperial family. It has been accused of isolating the family from the public and imposing stringent traditionalist behaviours especially on the royal household's women members.

Emperor Akihito, 75 - who in 1989 succeeded his father, wartime Emperor Showa known in the West as Hirohito, is a cellist and ichthyological researcher specializing in the taxonomy of the goby fish. He suffered recently from inflammation of the stomach and duodenum and an irregular heartbeat, which court officials attributed to distress and "heartache" over "various issues concerning the imperial household," among them the reported acute estrangement from his elder son, Crown Prince Naruhito.

Empress Michiko, 74, is the first commoner to marry into the imperial family (in 1959). An accomplished pianist and harpist with a degree in Japanese literature, she was educated in Tokyo, Harvard and Oxford with an expertise in children's literature. She recently spoke openly of living with "apprehension and sadness each and every day" of her life in court. She has been treated several times for stress-related illnesses.

Crown Prince Naruhito, 49 , holds undergraduate and graduate degrees in history, was educated in Tokyo and Oxford, and plays viola and goes mountaineering. He shocked Japan and the court by publicly accusing the Imperial Household Agency in 2004 of harassing his wife, Crown Princess Masako, to have a male baby and stripping her of her personality and career. He seldom visits his parents despite public pleas from IHA officials.

Crown Princess Masako, 45, is a Harvard graduate and former career diplomat, the daughter of a senior diplomat and academic. She has been treated for "adjustment disorder" since withdrawing from royal engagements in 2004, a psychological illness attributed to her loss of freedom upon marriage and pressure - including a public statement from IHA grand steward Toshio Yuasa - to produce a male heir. The former IHA chief acknowledged barring her from foreign travel so she would stay home and get pregnant. In 2001, she gave birth to daughter Aiko, or Princess Toshi, by in vitro fertilization.

Princess Toshi, 7, is the only child of the Crown Prince and Princess. Her birth ignited a debate over whether Japan's law of agnatic primogeniture (male-only) accession to the throne should be changed to allow women inheritors, which 70 per cent of the Japanese public approves of but which still has strong political opposition. The debate ended when her cousin, Prince Hisahito, was born in 2006.

Prince Akishino, 43, younger son of the Emperor and Empress, plays the guitar and has a PhD in ornithology. He publicly reproved his brother for criticizing the IHA and visits his parents with his children and wife, Princess Kiko, almost weekly.

Princess Kiko, 42, the daughter of an economics professor, holds undergraduate and graduate degrees in psychology, works with the deaf and is a skilled sign language interpreter. She has given birth to three children:

  • Princess Mako, 17, a senior-high-school student
  • Princess Kako, 14, a junior-high-school student
  • Prince Hisahito, 2, third in line to the throne (after his uncle and father) and the first male child born into the imperial family since his father in 1965.