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The day I saw the Emperor April 28, 2019

Posted by ayasawada in Culture, Japan.
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The Emperor is abdicating. Long live the Emperor.

A year ago, I was lucky enough to share airspace with Emperor Akihito of Japan, a person who’s bloodline was, until not long ago, considered living, breathing deities. But what I remember most is not his grandeur but his humility.

I was in Tokyo for the Japan Prize, the Japanese Nobels. This would be no ordinary celebrity siting. It was history before my eyes. At the age of 85, Emperor Akihito is way past retirement age and understandably tired after nearly 30 years on a relentless schedule of official duties, and a lifetime under a spotlight that began a decade before World War 2 even began.

This would be one of the last times anyone in the public would see him, and the weight of their presence was heavy before they even arrived. Half a century since Akihito’s father officially denounced divine links as a part of the peace process, the myth – or at least the history of it – lingers. And even if you can put that aside, this is still royalty.

My seat was sat right next to the red-carpeted runway (this was on normal days a kabuki theatre). Ceremony is everything. Everyone seemed to sit up straight even when they were standing.

I had a good view as they arrived. A shuffling entourage of 10 entered moving, in perfect sync around the quiet, unhurried shuffling of a grey-haired couple. I saw the fine polished shoes of the Emperor a few metres from my face and looked up, trying to absorb the weight of history.

What surprised me was how honestly delighted they seemed to be there. They stopped on stage, just before taking their seats, and looked around. Warm smiles, dignity, genuine class.

What struck me for the next two hours was their attentiveness, particularly the Empress Michiko. No signs of tiredness, boredom, barely even a blink. Just focus. For the whole two hours, whoever was speaking, whatever video was showing. A measured smile, full attention, gratitude to each speaker and each person around them.

Later, they moved to the balcony. They again stopped to receive the applause. How odd that you should applause people for just entering a room and taking their seats. But how polite to properly receive what people are so eager to give. I saw the Emperor take in with wider eyes the whole room, as if offering a second of his full attention to each and every one of the hundreds of people locking eyes on him.

A few hours later I stood at a front of a rope barrier, grinning as they strode gracefully out of their black car, the same warm smile and delight at seeing people there to greet them. The Emperor looked in my direction as he passed my way. I felt compelled to avert my gaze.

Later, from a quiet spillover room in the Tokyo Palace Hotel, I watched from a monitor their table, the camera fixed on the Emperor – himself a scientist – in deep conversation with Dr Akira Yoshino, one of the laureates. This event is one of the only time, I was told, that royalty dines in the company of others. The Emperor seemed in his element, delighted to be talking to other men of science. To be speaking as an equal, not a God.

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