April 10th 1959. There were more than 500,000 people lining up on the street of Tokyo, along the 8.8 km processional route, and although TV had only arrived in Japan six years earlier, 15 million viewers were already following the ceremony live at home. The occasion was the marriage of Crown Prince Akihito to Michiko Shoda — the first imperial wedding to be made available for public viewership in Japan.
As the newly wed left the imperial palace in a horse-drawn carriage, an angry student rushed out of the crowd toward the couple. The 19-year-old Kensetsu Nakayama threw a baseball-sized stone at the couple, tried to climb aboard the carriage and grab the bride. Footmen and police flung him to the ground before dragged him away. Upon interrogation, Nakayama noted that, “I don’t believe in the Emperor system and I never have. I was so mad I decided to drag the couple from the coach.” His fate was to be declared insane and sent to an insane asylum.
It was perhaps a fitting, if ugly, climax to a frenzy that had swept across Japan as the 1950s came to a close. The nation which had come out of the Second World War humbled and humiliated was once again on the upswing again, and the crown prince’s courtship of the commoner Michiko — against 2,000 years of imperial tradition — was the main topic of conversation.
The establishment’s opinion was divided. The prince’s mother, Empress Nagako, opposed the engagement, and the powerful palace bureaucracy, the Imperial Household Agency, hoped to select a bride from the daughters of the court nobility. Michiko’s Catholic upbringing was yet another sorepoint. But the politicians and the media, who viewed it as a step in the right direction for Japan’s modernization and democratization, were firmly behind the couple. (Strictly speaking, by then, everyone in Japan who wasn’t a member of Akihito’s family was a commoner. The post-war constitution had abolished the use of titles for everyone in the country except for the imperial family).
They had met playing in 1957, an encounter that came to be known as the “love match.” Afterwards, the photos of the future empress were everywhere; the women’s weekly magazine Josei Jishin covered her fashion choices in glossy pictorials. ‘Mitchi boom’ it would be dubbed; and her image would be compared with that of Ann, a princess played by Audrey Hepburn in ‘Roman Holiday’ a few years earlier. There were even reports that many girls were quitting their jobs to try to coordinate their weddings to match the precise time and date of the imperial couple’s wedding.
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