JIN-392 -- Banzai the Emperor and Empress!

The J at pan Inc. Newsletter

Commentary on the Week's Business, Technology and Cultural News
Issue No. 392
Wednesday November 8, 2006 TOKYO

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@@ VIEWPOINT: Banzai the Emperor and Empress!

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@@ VIEWPOINT: Banzai the Emperor and Empress!

Last week I met the Emperor and Empress of Japan. I regret
that I'm able to describe the circumstances in only vague
terms, for to be specific would violate a trust and prejudice
their Majesties against returning. Suffice to say that the
Imperial Couple graced a small-scale organization dedicated
to sport.

I use the word "grace" without irony, One of Whitman's
"roughs," a believer in democracy from boot soles to
cocked hat and in the equality of men, I'm not the sort
favorably disposed to royalty. Yet the experience helped
change my mind.

Their Majesties were due to arrive at 14:33, a precision
allowed by traffic being stopped for the imperial motorcade
that glides unmolested through red signal lights. (I later
learned that even my wife walking the dog had been
halted by the police.) 14:33 came and went and still no
distinguished guests. Told to act natural, we were
anything but, standing bovinely in the clubhouse on an
Indian summer afternoon when we would naturally have been
outdoors playing the sport that unites us. Sometimes a
member would come bounding down the flag-stoned path,
a false alarm eliciting laughter and breaking the tension.

Then entered the two most famous people in Japan:
Akihito, son of Hirohito and the 125th person to hold the
title of Emperor in the longest royal line in the world;
and Michiko, the Empress, radiant for even her gray
locks, her eyebrows high, like those of noblewomen
in the "Tale of Genji Picture Scroll." I confess I felt
a frisson of excitement.

They walked at a measured gait, bowing periodically
in response to the ripple of spontaneous applause
sweeping across the small room. They had a way,
surely practiced, but natural seeming, of making you think
their smile was for you.

We had been forewarned to refrain from taking photographs,
even from the ubiquitous cell phone camera, on pain of
expulsion. Here, I felt, was the repressive hand of the
Imperial Household Agency, nominally part of the Office
of the Prime Minister, that in its secrecy and conservatism
seems a throwback to the Meiji Era (1868-1912), when the
emperor was sovereign. The Agency is oft-accused of drawing
a "Chrysanthemum Curtain"(the chrysanthemum being the
imperial family crest) around the royal family to preserve
an aura of inviolability. The Agency is remembered for
closely guarding details of Hirohito's medical condition as
he lay dying in late 1988.

An English acquaintance present in the clubhouse was bemused
by the photo blackout, comparing it unfavorably with the
paparazzi-like frenzy engulfing British Royals wherever they go.

The Agency did accede to a request for a group photo with
their Imperial Highnesses, and all dutifully assembled
outdoors, their Majesties sitting on chairs front and center.
Again, we felt the Agency's cold hand, being informed we
would not be allowed to have a copy of the photograph.

Emperor and Empress did the sport for which the club
exists with aplomb, energy and skill, and afterwards
returned to the clubhouse for a repast of sparkling wine
and cheese.

They were, of course, the cynosure of attention. The
Empress had a steady stream of woman visitors, who knelt
by her place at the table, wide-eyed and all nerves and
giggles. Across the table men made their way to engage
His Majesty in brief conversation. My turn came, and I
was introduced by a friend of mine and a former
classmate of the Emperor. He shook my hand, asked how
long I'd been in Japan, and remarked that was a long time.

As I observed all this, I felt the weight borne by these two
people and realized that even in a private, controlled
setting like this they were on duty, without a moment for
a private thought, no chance for a breather. I could
appreciate the photo blackout; the alternative would have
been the continual popping of flashes in their faces. I
also understood the Japanese derived pleasure from and
were willing participants in abetting the air of sanctity.

Came time for the departure, and all stood and applauded
as the Imperial Couple slowly and with words of gratitude
retraced their steps up the moonlit flag stones. The pageant
over, we returned to earth.

-- Burritt Sabin
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