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The Imperial family. From left: Princess Masako, former Princess Sayako, The Emperor, Princess Mako, Prince Akishino, The Empress, Princess Akishino - holding Princess Kako, Crown Prince Naruhito.

The Japanese Imperial family is the oldest hereditary monarchy in the world. The family's lineage dates back to the sixth century BC, though the title of Tenno (emperor) or Sumera-Mikoto (heavenly sovereign) was assumed by rulers in the sixth or seventh century and has been used since. The family crest (above) is the kiku, or chrysanthemum.

Updates: The Crown Prince and Princess Masako had a baby girl, Princess Aiko, in April 2001.

Princess Kiko gave birth to a baby boy in September, 2006. The baby was named Hisahito. He is the first male heir born to the Chrysanthemum Throne in 41 years. The birth was seen as denting the hopes of those who wanted to see Princess Aiko as the next heir to ascend the throne.

Their Imperial Majesties, Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko

The Emperor and Empress
Emperor Akihito (Heisei), who acceded the throne on January 7, 1989, upon the death of his father, the Emperor Hirohito (posthumously Emperor Showa), was born in Tokyo on December 23, 1933 (this date is now a national holiday). He graduated from Gakushuin University, the favoured institute for all royals, in 1956. In 1959, he married Shoda Michiko (1934~ ) a valedictorian graduate in English Literature of Tokyo's University of the Sacred Heart (Seishin Jyoshi Daigaku).

They have two sons and a daughter whom they raised themselves, contrary to imperial tradition. The royal couple have traveled extensively around the world and have many interests. Their shared love of tennis is well known, since they first met on a tennis court. To watch the Empress in particular speak is to see the epitome of idealized Japanese womanhood. Her voice is incredibly soft, her face almost frozen in a semi-smile and her manner exudes poise and refinement. A far cry indeed from Japan's aggresive 'obaasans' or Shibuya 'gyals'!

The Crown Prince and Princess
The Crown Prince Naruhito (also known as Prince Hiro) was born in Tokyo on February 23, 1960. He graduated from Gakushuin University and Oxford University. His interests include history and music and he plays the violin. He married Owada Masako, a Harvard-University graduate in economics and diplomat at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in June 1993. Princess Masako, herself the daughter of a diplomat, grew up in several countries including the Soviet Union and the US. There was a wild media frenzy in 1999 when news broke of the Princess's pregnancy. Many blamed this pressure from the media for her subsequent miscarriage. A more restrained approach was taken when another pregnancy was announced in April 2001. The baby was born on December 1 but as it was a girl, whom they named Aiko, the future of the Royal Family remained uncertain.

For years, the Crown Prince's younger brother, Prince Akishino (who married Kawashima Kiko in 1990), was father to two girls, Princesses Mako and Kako, and no male heir had been born since his birth in November 1965. But hopes for an male successor were raised when Princess Kiko's pregnancy with their third child was announced in February 2006. A boy was born in September, becoming third in line for the throne after the Crown Prince and his own father.

Former Princess Sayako, who had the title of Nori-no-miya, was born in April 1969. She worked as a researcher at the Yamashina Institute of Ornithology. She married commoner Yoshiki Kuroda, a 40-year-old urban designer with the Tokyo Metropolitan Government and a longtime friend of Prince Akishino, in November 2005. Upon her marriage, she left the Imperial Family, taking the surname of her husband, as required by law. She is no longer entitled to her royal allowance, but reportedly received a dowry of over ¥100 million.

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