An Osaka restaurant has a new menu item: pizzas that spell out the characters “rei” and “wa” with cheese. They aren’t the only ones celebrating the name of Japan’s new imperial era. Baristas are spelling it out in foam atop lattes, while a seal at an aquarium southeast of Tokyo has apparently learned to write it.
Reiwa fever has swept Japan, as the country prepares to welcome its 126th emperor—the current Crown Prince Naruhito—who will usher in the era on May 1. His father, Emperor Akihito, abdicates the throne on Apr. 30.
After heart surgery and treatment for prostate cancer, Akihito, 85, has hinted for some time that he wanted to step down for health and age reasons. “I am worried that it may become more difficult for me to carry out my duties as the symbol of the state,” he said in 2016 in a rare televised address. Japan’s monarchs are expected to serve until death, but parliament passed special legislation to allow Akihito to step down.
Here’s what you need to know as Japan’s Heisei (achieving peace) era ends and the Reiwa (beautiful harmony) era begins.
Who is the emperor-in-waiting?
Kōtaishi Naruhito Shinnō, more commonly known as Crown Prince Naruhito, was born February 23, 1960 as Akihito’s oldest son. He grew up with his siblings and parents in Tokyo’s moat-protected Imperial Palace.
After earning a history degree at Gakushuin University, where he wrote a thesis on medieval water transport, the prince became the first Japanese royal to study overseas when he spent two years at Merton College, Oxford. The book he wrote chronicling his time there, The Thames and I: A Memoir of Two Years at Oxford, has just been re-issued in English.
The prince’s interest in water management extends beyond academia. Since 2007, he has served as honorary president of the U.N. Secretary General’s Advisory Board on Water and Sanitation, and he has spoken frequently on the topic at international conferences. “He has been actively involved in international environmental issues in recent years,” Hideya Kawanishi, associate professor at Nagoya University and an author of several books on Japan’s emperors, tells TIME.
Prince Naruhito’s hobbies include mountain climbing, jogging, tennis, skiing and playing the viola, according to the Associated Press.
What role do Japan’s monarchs play?
Believed to be the oldest hereditary monarchy in the world, Japan’s imperial tradition became purely symbolic after World War II, when the primarily U.S.-drafted constitution stripped the emperor of political power. Previously believed to be a near divine being descended from the Shinto deity Amaterasu, the Japanese emperor become a ceremonial and unifying figure, not unlike the role practiced by monarchs in the United Kingdom, Norway and Spain.
Under Emperor Akihito, Japan’s modern-day monarchy became more accessible and outgoing. He and Empress Michiko maintained a demanding schedule of around 250 public meetings and 75 trips around the country and overseas each year, as they served as emissaries of post-war reconciliation.
The emperor remains an important part of people’s lives in Japan. “The emperor is the means by which the Japanese define the national identity, what it means to be Japanese,” Ken Ruoff, professor of history and director of the Center for Japanese Studies at Portland State University tells TIME.
The constitution defines the emperor’s role as a “symbol of the state and of the unity of the people.”
Ruoff says “Each emperor puts his stamp on his particular reign, and Naruhito will do that.”
Is the Crown Prince’s family ready for the throne?
Naruhito first met his wife, Masako Owada, in 1986. He pursued the Harvard and Oxford-educated former-diplomat for several years. Although she was initially reluctant to become part of the imperial family, the pair married in 1993.
The princess reportedly struggled to adjust to the pressures of royal life and battled stress-related illnesses, according to Reuters.
Naruhito has often jumped to Owada’s defense. “He is fiercely protective of his wife who has endured media bashing over her health issues,” Jeffrey Kingston, director of Asian studies at Temple University Japan, tells TIME.
In 2004, the Crown Prince surprised the country when he openly criticized the Imperial Household Agency, the government agency responsible for managing the royals’ lives, for their role in his wife’s health issues. The princess “has worked hard to adapt to the environment of the Imperial Household for the past 10 years, but from what I can see, I think she has completely exhausted herself trying to do so,” Naruhito said, according to the Japan Times.
The pair have one daughter, Princess Aiko, born in 2001. Deeply ingrained beliefs about gender roles mean that women have historically been relegated to child-rearing while men were viewed as breadwinners, but Narhutio has bucked tradition and advocated for a hands-on approach with Aiko.
Beliefs are slowly changing. A few years ago the government launched a media campaign called the “Ikumen project” which roughly translates as “men raising children” to encourage fathers to take on child care duties, and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has set a target to raise the number of new fathers who take paternity leave to 13% by 2020, from about 3% last year.
The next emperor, who tooks turns bathing and feeding his daughter in infancy, is “a symbol of a new definition of fatherhood,” says Ruoff.
What will Naruhito do once he takes the throne?
Japan-watchers believe that Naruhito will largely follow in the footsteps of his father, who worked to repair the country’s image after World War II.
Emperor Akihito “never shied away from making statements about war memory, and from showing ‘deep remorse’ and ‘sorrow’ for Japan’s aggression in Asia,” Jeremy Yellen, assistant professor in the Department of Japanese Studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, tells TIME. “I believe that Naruhito will largely follow in his father’s footsteps, especially in his rejection of revisionist views of Japan’s wartime past.”
“Although I was born after the war and did not experience it, I think that today, where memories of the war have started to fade, it is important to look back in a humble way on the past and pass on correctly the tragic experiences of war,” Naruhito said at a news conference in 2015, according to the Japan Times.
With his formative experience as a student overseas, Naruhito may bring a more global perspective to the role than his predecessors did. “By adopting a concrete issue, namely water, that is far more of concern to the world than to Japan, he is already taking the imperial house in a new direction, lending his prestige to the neediest members of global society,” Ruoff says.
World – TIME