Before the second world war, children in Japan were taught at school that the emperor was not a human being, but a god. When the classroom topic became the emperor, children had to straighten their backs to listen. My mother, as a primary school girl in the 1930s, remembers the Showa emperor (Hirohito’s) car passing her local area. Along with her companions, she had to bow deeply until he was far away. But she recalls that everybody tried to steal a glance at the car.
As a small girl near the historic city of Nara, the famous novelist and human-rights defender Sue Sumii (1902-97) once saw a farmer collecting the emperor’s excrement after an imperial visit to the area. For him it was like a holy relic.
When in the late 1950s the Crown Prince (the present emperor, Akihito) married Michiko – an ‘ordinary’ civilian with whom he had fallen in love over a tennis court at a summer resort – she became extremely popular among the nation, even acquiring the affectionate name ‘Miichi’. It was the first time that people gathered together in front of TV sets – often with poor reception - in their neighbours’ houses.
As a person who belongs to the same generation as the crown prince Hironomiya (Akihito’s elder son) and the Crown Princess Masako, I have never thought of the royal family as the symbol of our country. They were if anything people I felt sorry for, like caged birds.
They were, after all, caught by the tradition of the imperial court. When Hironomiya went on an orienteering trip from school, all the weeds were cut the previous day and guards were placed at every turn along his route so that he could not miss his way. The Empress Michiko who changed the custom by bringing up her three children in her own care twice lost her voice from stress.
When the second son, Prince Akishinonomiya, married Kiko, whom he had met at university, the first media ‘boom’ of the royal family came to our generation. When the formally-dressed messenger from the imperial court climbed the outside stairs of the small apartment block where Kiko’s family lived, it looked rather odd but somehow heartwarming.
When I was working on the third floor of an office building just beside the royal residence at Moto-Asakasa in central Tokyo, we usually could see only nice green trees inside the walls. But one day there was Princess Kiko, freshly smiling at her small daughter Mako who was busy picking the ground with a twig. An everyday scene of mother and daughter, except for a young uniformed officer saluting to her nearby.
The future is female
In Japan, the royal family has been in the news again recently after the arrival of the long-awaited baby, Princess Toshinomiya (Aiko), the daughter of Crown Prince Hironomiya and Crown Princess Masako. Succession to the throne in Japan is now only through the male line, but the majority of Japanese seem to have no objection to a woman ascending the throne.
The Japanese royal family is slowly changing. It is still very formal, and it was disappointing that Princess Masako who was once a diplomat lost her high-spirited public voice after becoming part of the royal family. But these princesses have also brought fresh air from the outside through the palace walls. And they are now mothers.
The royal family is not important at all to my identity as a Japanese. But as long as it exists, I would like to give each person within it the freedom to be an individual human being.
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