Tuesday, February 13, 2007

The Emperor's New Year's Greeting... January 2, 2007

One of the things I wished I'd done the first New Year's I spent in Tokyo was to see the Emperor's traditional greeting. I forget why I didn't then, but this time I made sure to be there. The government opens the inner gardens of the palace, and the Imperial Family appears several times during the morning and afternoon. The Emperor makes a very brief address each time.

This was the only cloudy day of my stay this time. We lucked out because the rain held off, but it was cold and dreary outside. Feel free to click on the photos to see them larger... and enjoy!

You cross into the parks surrounding the palace across one of several bridges. Just across this moat, behind me, is one of the most skyscraper-filled vistas in Tokyo, the ultra-modern Marunouchi area just outside the quaint brick Tokyo station.

Security was heavy. This is a mounted officer, giving some pomp to the occasion. Just before I took this photo, a father had his tiny daughter pose in front of this horse. She grinned happily and held up two paper Japanese flags.

I tried to take some wide shots, imagining myself as filmmaker David Lean shooting one of his classic 60s epics. Here's a view of the long line of pilgrims making their way into the palace gardens across a gravel lot. At this point, given the surroundings and despite the sober, anticipatory feel among the throngs, it was easy to picture crowds going into a stadium for a football game.

Uniformed Tokyo police. A helicopter hovered overhead, and there were loudspeaker vans everywhere, with amplified voices making announcements I couldn't understand. The police frisked us before we got to this point. In today's world of heightened terror concerns and given Japan's involvement in the Iraq War, I can understand why the police would be out in force.

Although they probably would have been anyway, if this event were held under different circumstances.

Entering the palace gardens, crossing another bridge.

This is a view of the inner moat and what I'm guessing is a guardhouse.

And crossing the innermost bridge.

Looking back at Marunouchi. The mix of the very old and the very new was breathtaking. From the ornate ironwork of this bridge, and the palace buildings rebuilt in Edo-period style, looking back at steel and glass and concrete... I can't think of too many places where you can stand in one century and see another.

The palace itself. Those two guys in the long coats are plainclothes police, maybe Tokyo city or federal. They didn't volunteer the information, and of course I didn't ask.

The Imperial Family appears. Immediately the crowd erupted into patriotic cheers. I didn't join the cheers, but I waved my Japanese flag.

The crowd settled down while Emperor Akihito spoke. He said a very few words in simple Japanese so everyone could understand. The gist of it was: "I am happy to welcome the new year with you. I hope we will have world peace. Thank you."

I was actually closer than it looks from this photo.

After he spoke, the crowd began cheering again as the family waved from the balcony. The older gentleman in the foreground looks like a stunned mackerel as my flash goes off right in his face.

Zooming in a little. The Emperor is second from the left. I think Empress Michiko is on his left. People I showed my little cellphone snapshots to told me who each person was, but I've forgotten.

In my hotel room later that evening, I watched a Japanese TV documentary about the Imperial family. They really seem like nice people. The pressure they live under is enormous. Imagine being the living symbol of your nation, a job you're born to and can never resign.

The Crown Prince, Naruhito, stirred up controversy a couple of years back for publicly defending his wife, Princess Masako, in the press. She was educated in the United States and worked as a diplomat before the marriage, but afterwards had to forcefully transition into a more traditional role, and probably most importantly, produce a male heir.

Instead, the couple had a daughter, Princess Aiko. This set the stage for a constitutional crisis that was only recently resolved, at least temporarily.

Prince Naruhito made his statements because the unceasing pressure on his wife was damaging her health, especially during the debate over whether their daughter, should be allowed to take the throne. He told the press Princess Masako's "individuality had been suppressed at great cost." In 2004, approaching her breaking point, she sought psychiatric help and went into seclusion.

In 2005, Princess Masako began making public appearances again, and was photographed looking fit and healthy while skiing with her daughter, but who knows what the long term prognosis may be?

I can't even begin to imagine that life.

Still, it was a unique and enjoyable experience to stand with the crowds and greet the New Year with the Emperor of Japan, the latest in a long line of memorable New Year's for me stretching back to 2000.

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