How Emperor Akihito’s ‘love match’ won over Japan

Tokyo, Japan CNN  — 

In the late 1950s, royal wedding fever swept Japan. Then-Crown Prince Akihito had fallen for literature graduate Michiko Shoda, whom he met on a tennis court in 1957 in a fateful encounter that came to be known as the “love match.”

National fascination with the prince’s wedding was due, in part, to Michiko’s status as a commoner – a move that broke with over 2,000 years of tradition. But the growth of mass media and the emergence of live television also helped to cement the pair’s enormous popularity, forever changing the way that the royal family shaped its public image.

The nation was enthralled by the future princess, and photos of her appeared everywhere. Media outlets, like the women’s weekly magazine Josei Jishin, pored over Michiko in glossy, picture-led features that dissected her style choices, among much else.

Crown Prince Akihito of Japan and his fiancee Michiko Shoda play tennis at the Tokyo Lawn Tennis Club, on December 6, 1958 in Tokyo, Japan.

“A ‘Mitchi boom’ exploded nationwide,” said one of the magazine’s current reporters, Yukiya Chikashige, who has covered the imperial family for more than three decades.

“She was smart, beautiful and good at sports. Her popularity was like that of Meghan’s, Catherine’s or even Princess Diana’s. Her image was similar to Princess Ann (Audrey Hepburn’s character) in ‘Roman Holiday.’

“Japanese women adored her – her hairstyle, fashion, accessories, the way she spoke,” Chikashige added. “So sales of TV sets shot up because everyone wanted to see them wed.”

Shaping public perception

Historically, Japanese emperors were revered as human deities. They rarely, if ever, interacted with the public. But from an early age Emperor Akihito, who steps down on Tuesday, began taking down the centuries-old barriers between the royal family and the public – especially as he courted and then married Michiko.

Photography and mass media again played a huge role in this evolution, especially on the wedding day. “Everyone was enraptured by this ‘romance of the century,’” recalled Shigeo Suzuki, a former TV producer who oversaw coverage of the wedding in 1959.

Crown Prince Akihito and Crown Princess Michiko riding a carriage through the streets of Tokyo on their wedding day.

“The country was coming out of the shadows of defeat in World War II and was working hard to create the image of a new Japan. It was in the beginning of an economic boom, material and electronic products were entering households, and all of this coincided with the prince’s marriage.”

Along with his team from Tokyo Broadcasting System (TBS), Suzuki set up 12 camera positions to capture the event.

Television sets had only arrived in the country six years earlier, and live broadcasting was in its infancy. Prior to the royal wedding, footage had been delivered from fixed cameras. But the event marked one of the first instances when moving cameras, mounted on dollies, were used, according to Suzuki.

“There weren’t many TV sets yet, so television came behind newspapers, radio and magazines. But the wedding changed that,” he said.

The royal wedding marked one of the first instances when moving cameras, mounted on dollies, were used in the country.

A model for modernization

On April 10, 1959, more than half a million people lined the parade route, while an estimated 15 million tuned in to watch the wedding live. After the ceremony, Akihito and Michiko continued to embrace their public roles, using the media to help shape a new, modern image for the imperial family – both before and after they were named emperor and empress in 1989.

During photo opportunities, cameras were invited to get closer shots and better angles than ever before, according to Chikashige. Images from the time show the young couple raising their own children and taking them to school, as well as cooking in the palace kitchen.

The couple often broke with tradition, opting to raise their own children.

“They (the couple) wanted to show they were not reigning, but rather, they were just like us,” he said. “Thanks to these pictures of the prince and princess, the image of the imperial family gradually changed from one of reverence to one of love and respect.

“They became a model for modern, Westernized lifestyles at a time when Japan was moving away from the destruction of war and into a new era.”