An imperial evolution


POSTED: Friday, July 10, 2009

Katsugo Miho, 88, remembers visiting Japan as a little boy and being warned to bow low when the emperor's car came by, back in the days when the ruler was revered as divine.

“;I grew up in a generation when I was told you don't look up when the emperor passes, when that red car passes you by,”; said Miho, who was born and raised on Maui. “;The color dark red, maroon red was prohibited for the general population to own a car like that. And nobody else rode a pure white horse.”;

Japan's imperial institution has evolved to the point where, much later in life, Miho not only looked Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko in the eye, but shook hands and chatted with them at the Imperial Palace. He is looking forward to seeing them again at a banquet this week during their visit to Hawaii.

“;The empress is so charming, she's out of this world,”; said Miho, a trustee of a scholarship foundation bearing Akihito's name. “;They have turned around the image of the imperial couple completely, not only within their own country but internationally.”;

As crown prince, Akihito vowed to bring the imperial family “;closer to the people,”; and he has had some success, although Japan's monarchy remains more regimented and formal than its European counterparts. He led the way with his groundbreaking wedding in 1959 to Michiko Shoda, the first commoner to marry an heir to the Japanese throne. They met at a tennis match that she and her partner won, and the prince was enchanted, but had to persuade her to marry him.

“;We spoke over the telephone many times before the empress finally accepted,”; Emperor Akihito, 75, recalled on their golden anniversary this April.

Michiko, the daughter of a prominent businessman, may have been reluctant to give up her freedom for the controlled, cloistered life of the Japan's imperial family, whose unbroken chain of 125 rulers reputedly dates back more than 2,000 years. Both the empress and her daughter-in-law, Princess Masako, have had trouble adjusting to the rigid strictures of the imperial palace.

The daily lives of the imperial family are strictly regulated. The Imperial Household Agency, a 1,200-member bureaucracy, scripts its activities and controls the purse strings. The emperor's speeches and other public comments must be approved in advance. Their movements are restricted.

“;Since the end of World War II, the figure of the emperor has changed greatly and I think that the current emperor has tried very hard to change that role,”; said Christine Yano, a professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa who specializes in the cultural anthropology of Japan. “;But it's not about a person at all, it's an institution. And institutions in Japan don't change readily or quickly or maybe even substantively.”;

Polls show that 75 to 85 percent of the Japanese people want to retain the monarchy, although many feel it is remote from their lives, according to Jeffrey Kingston, a history professor and director of Asian Studies at Temple University's Japan campus in Tokyo.

After Japan's defeat in World War II, there were calls to abolish the entire institution. But Gen. Douglas MacArthur, supreme commander of the Allied forces, feared doing so would destabilize the country.

Instead, Emperor Hirohito renounced his divinity and was stripped of his power, reduced to simply a “;symbol of the state and the unity of the people.”;

Unlike the aloof figure of Hirohito, whose voice was first heard by Japanese commoners when he announced Japan's surrender on the radio, Akihito and Michiko have reached out to their countrymen. They have also worked to make amends for Japanese aggression abroad.

“;To me, the greatest contribution of Emperor Akihito has been in terms of promoting reconciliation with victims and enemies from World War II through an engaged and sustained campaign of peace diplomacy,”; Kingston said in an e-mail exchange with the Star-Bulletin. “;He has done a great deal to try to heal the wounds of the past and address the legacies of imperial excesses committed in his father's name.”;

Along with trips overseas, the imperial couple has traveled throughout Japan, visiting social welfare institutions for the elderly, children and disabled. They have gone to almost every Hansen's disease sanitarium in the nation, sitting and talking with patients, holding their hands.

“;They've made an effort to get out among the people in unusual places,”; said Sharon Minichiello, a former director of the Center for Japanese Studies at the University of Hawaii. “;You'll see it especially with the empress. She's quite loquacious. The security has to keep pushing her along because she'll stop and talk with people at length.”;

After the devastating 1995 Kobe earthquake, the emperor and empress flew to the area and touched hearts when they knelt to comfort survivors. This year, to mark their anniversary, they invited 100 couples from across Japan who were also celebrating their golden anniversaries to a tea party at the palace.

Some of the couple's most precious times, according to the emperor, have come when they slipped off on nature walks and happened upon their countrymen also enjoying a shoreline sunset or bird-watching along a mountain stream.

“;When she was sharing the beauty of the moment with many others, the empress seemed so happy,”; Akihito said. “;Neither the empress nor I want to hide our status, but rather, we both feel the happiest when we are accepted as we are by the people.”;

Michiko graduated as valedictorian and student body president from Sacred Heart University, but was snubbed as an outsider by some within the palace grounds. She and her husband bucked convention, becoming the first imperial couple to raise their children themselves, rather than handing them off to nursemaids and tutors. Michiko even prepared the kids' bento box lunches to take to school.





        In poems they wrote to mark the New Year 2009, Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko reflected on life and nature at the Imperial Palace.

Observing creatures
        How their lives are closely linked
        And interwoven
        For fifteen years we have lived
        Here in the Imperial Palace


Emperor Akihito


How sad and dear
        The creatures living their lives
        In early spring light
        The midges dance, forming
        An ephemeral column


Empress Michiko


Note: The emperor and empress moved into their current residence on the imperial grounds in December 1993.


Source: The Imperial Household Agency


But she paid a price for such assertions of independence, and has suffered from stress-related illness. During a session with reporters before a trip to Europe in 2007, the empress referred to her anxiety since joining the imperial household.

“;I always carried with me a sad and apologetic feeling for not being able to fully meet people's expectations and demands,”; she said. “;This is true not only of then, but now as well ... having had to live with this apprehension and sadness each and every day has been quite a significant challenge for me.”;

Asked where she would go if she were invisible, she spoke wistfully of having had to pass up museum exhibits for fear of disrupting people's movements, and longing to browse the secondhand bookshops she frequented as a student.

Her daughter-in-law, the Harvard-educated Princess Masako, has also suffered in the imperial cocoon. Fluent in several languages, she gave up a budding career as a diplomat to marry Crown Prince Naruhito. She came under intense pressure to produce a male heir, and was kept from traveling abroad for six years until she eventually gave birth to a daughter. In 2004, the palace announced she was suffering from a stress-induced “;adjustment disorder,”; with bouts of depression. She appears to be recovering and has ventured out more in public recently.

“;Their daily lives are labeled and managed and scheduled to such an extent,”; Miho said. “;That's one of the reasons why even the empress has had her problems and Masako has her problems, because of that rigidity. They must suffocate in that kind of situation, basically.”;

Along with their heavy ceremonial duties, holding receptions and conferring awards, the emperor and empress carry on other rituals. Each year, the emperor plants and harvests rice in a paddy on the palace grounds, and the empress raises silkworms.

An authority on goby, a type of fish, Akihito works in his laboratory and has published numerous scientific papers. He also was a contributing author to “;Fishes of Japan with Pictorial Keys to the Species,”; published in 2000. Michiko, an English literature major, has written a children's book and translated two volumes of poetry.

Miho, who has both U.S. and Japanese citizenship, feels honored to meet the imperial couple a second time.

“;I still feel reverence,”; he said. “;I cannot forget that. It's hard to forget your upbringing.”;