As the Heisei era under Emperor Akihito's reign draws to a close in Japan, here is a collection of photos highlighting the major events in his and Empress Michiko's lives.

Prince Akihito was born in December 1933 as the eldest son of Emperor Hirohito and Empress Nagako. The following year, Michiko Shoda was born in October as the eldest daughter of Hidesaburo Shoda, who later became chairman of flour milling company Nisshin Seifun Group Inc., and his wife Fumiko. 

(Prince Akihito held by his mother in July 1934)
[Photo supplied by the Ministry of the Imperial Household]

(Prince Akihito at 2 years old, December 1935)
[Photo supplied by the Ministry of the Imperial Household] 

(Michiko Shoda, left, plays on a beach when she was two to three years old)
[Supplied photo]

During World War II, Prince Akihito evacuated from Tokyo to Nikko, Tochigi Prefecture, in March 1944. In August the following year, his father, Emperor Hirohito, announced to the nation over radio of Japan's surrender in the war and Prince Akihito returned to the capital in November.

(Prince Akihito at 12 years old and his calligraphy "Construct a nation of peace" in sixth grade, 1946)

After becoming crown prince in November 1952, he visited Europe and the United States the following year, including attending the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in place of his father. 

A year after completing his studies at Gakushuin University, the crown prince met Michiko Shoda for the first time in August 1957 on a tennis court in Karuizawa in Nagano Prefecture, when they played against each other in a doubles match. 

(At a tennis court in Karuizawa, 1958)

(At Tokyo Lawn Tennis Club in Azabu, December 1958)

The two became engaged in November 1958 and married on April 10, 1959, marking the first time in Japan for the crown prince, and later the first emperor, to be married to a commoner.

An estimated 530,000 people thronged to see their wedding procession as the couple rode in a horse-drawn carriage from the Imperial Palace to their residence.

Their first son, Naruhito, was born in 1960, followed by their second son, Fumihito, in 1965 and daughter Sayako in 1969. The couple did away with the imperial custom of leaving children in the care of nannies, choosing instead to raise their children themselves.

(Prince Naruhito, June 1961)

(Prince Naruhito entertains his baby brother, Prince Fumihito, 1966)

(Prince Naruhito pushes a stroller carrying his baby sister Princess Sayako and little brother Prince Fumihito, 1969)

In July 1975, the couple made their first visit to Okinawa, three years after its reversion to Japan from U.S. control. They narrowly escaped a firebomb thrown at them by leftist activists at the Himeyuri war memorial.

In January 1989, upon the death of Emperor Hirohito, the 55-year-old crown prince ascended the throne and the couple assumed the titles of emperor and empress. The imperial era name changed from Showa to Heisei the following day.

Over his three-decade reign as the "symbol of the state," Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko made official visits to 35 countries, including to China in October 1992 in the first trip to the country by a Japanese emperor. 

To pay tribute to the war dead, they visited Okinawa again in 1993 and 1995; Iwoto Island, the fierce World War II battleground previously known as Iwojima, in 1994; the atomic-bombed cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1995; Saipan in 2005, Palau in 2015, and the Philippines in 2016. 

In August 2015, Emperor Akihito stated "deep remorse" over WWII for the first time at an annual memorial ceremony for the war dead. 

(The Great Wall of China, 1992)

(Saipan, 2005)

(Palau, 2015)

Domestically, they often traveled to areas struck by natural disasters to offer support and encouragement to those affected. Images of the informally dressed couple kneeling down to talk with survivors at evacuation centers were said to have helped bring the secluded imperial family closer to the public.

(Visit to Nagasaki Prefecture after the Mt. Unzen volcanic eruption, July 1991)

(Visit to Hyogo Prefecture after the Great Hanshin Earthquake, January 1995)

(Visits to areas hit by the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami, March-May 2011)

In August 2016, Emperor Akihito released a rare video message to the public, expressing his desire to abdicate and pass the throne on to Crown Prince Naruhito.

At a press conference to mark his 85th birthday last December, Emperor Akihito expressed his gratitude for Empress Michiko's support throughout the years. 

(January 2019)

"I am truly grateful to the empress, who herself was once one of the people, but who chose to walk this path with me, and over 60 long years continued to serve with great devotion both the imperial family and the people of Japan," the emperor said.

Emperor Akihito will step down in an abdication ceremony on April 30, 2019, becoming the first Japanese monarch to so do in about 200 years.

Empress Michiko said last year that once they no longer have official duties to attend to, she hopes that they will be able to "spend our remaining days living quietly, with a sense of joy and gratitude."

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