24 December 2001

Freezing at Emperor Akihito's 68th Birthday

Parts of the Imperial Palace in Tokyo are only open to foreigners on the Emperors's birthday and the second or third of January. I got a press pass to see him give a birthday address; somehow I assumed this would be indoors, in some kind of magisterial palatial room that would impress me with the royalty and tradition of the world's longest lasting Emperor-ship.

Instead I was permitted to stand shivering in a courtyard with thousands of other observers as the Emperor stood on a "bulletproof balcony" (HSS) and briefly stated his hopes for a collective Japanese economic recovery in plain (not fancy traditional-royal) Japanese. Information about the event from the FCCJ was provided in Japanese only, so after some confusion and a resulting late arrival, I was given a ribbon which allowed me to enter press-only areas. I had primed my camera with fresh batteries and digital film and then proceeded to leave it on my desk at home. Fortunately I had my camera-equipped J-Phone and I was able to snap some pictures.

picture from the Japanese Emperor's birthday party People streamed into the courtyard, most everyone (gaijin included, waving small paper Japanese flags on plastic sticks. The more fervent (mostly Uyoku - Japanese nationalist right-wingers) held large pennants, banners and flags aloft. They wore bandannas and blue uniforms Some managed military stride and positioning, but there were never more than six or eight in any one group so they weren't much of an impressive display. The number of weedy-looking slicksters and pug-headed thugs coming to honor the Emperor in the freezing cold at 10am on a Sunday morning was positively shocking.
picture from the Japanese Emperor's birthday party Many people stopped to take pictures of the press - there were lots of Japanese folks with lots of large cameras. I was the only white guy freezing with the presscorps watching the crowd come in. I tried to get in close so people taking a picture of the wacky Japanese cameramen would get also get a shot of some idiot Yankee freezing in a suit.
picture from the Japanese Emperor's birthday party Soon the courtyard was full and when the Emperor was announced the paper flags shot up in to the air waving hard and the crowd began to chant - Banzai! and Banzai Denke Tenou Heika! (sorta like "Happy birthday to the Emperor!" only like 10,000 happy birthdays in one phrase). I couldn't really make out that last part until I was up in front (for the second of three renditions of the same event for another courtyard full of folks). From the front the sound was nearly deafening. The Emperor did not respond except to smile always and wave: a very tight range of quivering lateral hand movement.

picture from the Japanese Emperor's birthday party This was a group of Emperor-loving folk who came to the event and then posed for pictures afterwards. They had banners saying Happy Birthday, Long Life, that kinda stuff - the mood didn't seem to be particularly militarist or jingoist on this holiday. One guy had long gray hair and glasses; it somehow made the group look famous; like he was some kind of leader/crank/philosopher. An unusual-looking Japanese citizen, at least, at the head of a group of smiling Emperor lovers.
picture from the Japanese Emperor's birthday party Once I was up in front I got to see some of the die-hards who had either woken up early or been very pushy to reach the front for the speech. Most of them were small middle-aged ladies with very large cameras. But one guy was wearing an American army uniform, and holding an American flag, dead center in front of the Emperor's Bulletproof Balcony. He had kind of a permanent curl to his lip. I worked up enough Japanese to ask, Why are you holding an American flag? He unfurled it further to show that this was actually two flags stitched together - one side was the stars and stripes, and the other side was the Japanese imperial navy flag - from an era when Japan dominated Asia. Obviously this man had a dense political message to share; I didn't get to the bottom of it, but I did get to see his pictures of the Emperor and the crown princess that he was happily showing about. On our way out, after the event, he handed me a plastic card with a calendar on one side, and a ukiyo-e print on the other - a giveaway from a Japanese national lottery company.
picture from the Japanese Emperor's birthday party Fortunately, I was able to get up close for the second run of the Emperor's speech to capture the sight of the royal family standing before the people of Japan. From left to right, an imperial lady, the crown prince Naruhito (but not his baby, unfortunately), the Emperor, empress Michiko, and some guy with a mustache and a lady he was with. I didn't know who the mustache guy was, he looked like a late addition to the party. Thank gosh I had my trusty mobile phone camera here.
picture from the Japanese Emperor's birthday party This might be the oldest building on the grounds of the palace, a tower dating from the 1600s. The windows and doors are covered in solid white plastic. It's picturesque, and that's about it. One Japanese man stood at the base of this pile of rocks and blew a bird whistle repeatedly. All I saw flying about were crows.

Besides this one beautiful outcropping, there was little palatial inspiration. While the public courtyard where the Emperor received his people was vast, the venue resembled Ikea maintenance corridors with a better roof and some flower arrangements. I wandered a bit trying to find the Versailles of Japan and found only an old stone office building with exposed plumbing in its courtyard. The Emperor of Japan has always been mostly symbolic; after WWII the Americans stripped the crown of most of its symbolic power as well. Oops. That may have made sense in terms of military restraint and social change, but it certainly makes for a less thrilling visit to the palace.

From the front row I could see the Emperor was beaming, smiling, doing a great job of communicating enthusiasm and benevolent patriarchy with his face. Later a Czech woman I met (married to a Salaryman who couldn't make it) she said he must be happy to be a grandfather. yasukuni Henry Scott-Stokes discovered that the Emperor has not visited Yasukuni Jinja since 1973, "because he's smart." Recently he's made favourable remarks towards Korea; aside from having no power and little money he seems quite reasonable. Indeed he appeared to look like a civil servant who loves his job. His son looked like the Al Gore of Japan; a bit too stiff still. Maybe aging into your 70s in Japan after WWII puts deeper lines into your face, one of them being a permanent public smile.

Of his message, slowly spoken, exactly the same twice, I only understood two things - nobody laughed, and he used the word "kibishii" which means very serious. Later translations revealed that he was lamenting the state of the Japanese economy and hoping for everyone to pull together and pull through.

The people most willing to serve and revere the Imperial are the criminal underbelly of the Japanese economy; the Yakuza and their political right wing buddies the Uyoku. The most impressive display of public affection was two score Yakuza who had gotten up early on a Sunday in their best black suits and stood in formation towards the back of the crowd in tight lines, throwing up their hands with especially loud bonzais. They would likely give the Emperor some large donations and able handlers if he was willing to exchange some legitimacy. Instead the royal family in Japan seems mostly a charity; trying to heal the country as they have inherited little other purpose.


Japan | trip | life

justin's links by justin hall: contact