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In the emperor’s speech, a Japanese dynasty comes down to earth

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Here is a man. A small man — at 77, an old man — in a dark suit with an unremarkable voice, frequently glancing down at the sheaf of papers on his desk, which hold an address of plain words. It is the emperor of Japan.

To see him is not to see a president or prime minister, who trade in television appearances and winning turns of phrase. Until Emperor Akihito addressed his people Wednesday, he had never before delivered a televised speech. Not once in his two-decade reign.

“I hope things will take a turn for the better,” he said to a nation that had just suffered a massive earthquake and nuclear plant disasters. “It is my hope that many lives will be saved.” His entire address was about five minutes long.

The screen-watching world has been particularly attuned this year to the speeches of kings, or at least the speeches of kings who are played by Colin Firth in Oscar-winning movies. “The King’s Speech” helped even monarchy-ignorant Americans understand that it meant something when a royal spoke. That’s all royals seem to do anymore, anyway: they mean things. They symbolize things, decoratively, all pomp and pageantry and figureheads. But in times of crisis, they could genuinely mean something.

The Japanese monarchy is the oldest hereditary dynasty in the world, going back more than 2,000 years. Until World War II, emperors were considered to be arahitogami — incarnate deities, living gods. There were forms of speech that only emperors could use. Chin, an emperor would say, for “I,” and it was an “I” that was for no one else.

When Japan surrendered to the Allies in 1945, Akihito’s father, Emperor Hirohito, was forced to refute his divine status. As part of postwar negotiations he was allowed to retain his title, but only on a ceremonial basis. He became just a man, an emperor with no empire.

This is the throne that Akihito inherited in 1989 — an ancient title in a modern era. “He cannot decide anything,” says Ben-Ami Shillony, an Israeli author who has written two books on the Japanese monarchy, and who was honored by the emperor in 2010 for his contributions to Japanese studies. Akihito “cannot say anything of a political or controversial nature,” Shillony says. “He really has no powers at all.”

His actions are controlled by the Imperial Household Agency, the government institution whose purpose is overseeing the emperor. He gives an annual address to open Japan’s parliament, but the government has written it for him. He stands on a balcony on his birthday, and he waves to the cheering crowds.

What he has is symbolism. Meaning.

Throughout Akihito’s reign, the imperial couple has symbolized the modernity that was foisted upon them, and that they, in turn embraced. Akihito is not a soldier, but a scholar, Shillony notes; he writes about fish for journals of biology. In times when the country believed that disabled individuals should be hidden from public view, the emperor and his wife, Empress Michiko, championed the Paralympics.

Michiko was the first commoner to marry into Japanese royalty; she met her husband on a tennis court when she was 23, and they married two years later and had three children. In an unprecedented move, the empress took up her own causes, championing children’s literacy. “She has been the most active empress in all of Japan,” says Kenneth Ruoff, a Portland professor who has written several books on the imperial family.

In recent years, Japan fretted that the royal lineage might end with Akihito’s oldest son. In an absurd tragedy, Crown Prince Naruhito’s wife, Crown Princess Masako, has a Harvard education but is primarily known for her failure to give birth to a male heir. For awhile, there was speculation that the government might consider amending the constitution to allow female emperors. A son born to Naruhito’s younger brother, Prince Akishino, made that debate unnecessary, but, Ruoff says, Empress Michiko’s active role might have paved the way for future generations of female power.

And, because progress so often involves looking back, Akihito has spent his reign apologizing for his father’s legacy, making amends with the neighboring countries that suffered brutality at Japanese hands during the Second World War.

Wars and catastrophes are when decorative monarchs shine or fade. Even without power, they are viewed as guideposts of behavior or beacons of hope.

There was King George VI’s speech, of course, at once halting and intimate, both on screen and in real life. And there were the actions of other monarchs of his era. King Haakon VII of Norway hinted that he would abdicate the throne if the Norwegian government acquiesced to the demands of the Germans: “The responsibility for the calamities that will befall people and country is indeed so grave that I dread to take it,” he told the cabinet, and was eventually forced into exile. His brother, King Christian X of Denmark, refused to leave the city of Copenhagen during the war. While the Nazis occupied the city, he daily rode his horse, Jubilee, unprotected through the streets.

More recently: One day after Emperor Akihito’s speech, Britain’s Prince William visited New Zealand, also hit by a recent earthquake, and delivered messages of reassurance to the nation, a member of the British Commonwealth: “With the queen’s heartfelt good wishes, and those of the prince of Wales and other members of my family, I say it to you now: ‘Kia kaha.’ Be strong.”

“The essence of a monarchy is that it is symbolic of the nation as a whole,” says Bill Purdue, the author of “Long to Reign? The Survival of Monarchies in the Modern World.” It’s a link between the nation’s past and present.”

In times of tragedy, it can be reassuring that the face reassuring you is a face you have known for decades, as familiar as a family member’s. It belongs to a person who will never retire — who is, in some ways, simply a very highly exalted public servant.

Of Wednesday’s address, Purdue says, “The person who represents the essence of being Japanese was speaking to the nation at one of Japan’s most important times.”

The last time a Japanese monarch made such an address was in 1945 — when he was still a living god, and he had to tell his people that their country had surrendered.

In that speech, Hirohito spoke in a formal dialect — a court dialect, some have called it — full of euphemisms. “The war situation has developed not necessarily to Japan’s advantage,” he hedged in firm, clipped tones. It was the first time the people of Japan had heard their ruler’s voice.

By contrast, Akihito’s speech last week was formal, Japanese speakers noted, but no more formal than an average citizen would use for such a solemn occasion. When he used the pronoun “we,” it was the “we” of any Japanese citizen.

In those five minutes were no quotable lines, no fourscore and sevens, no “I had a dream,” no “I will fight no more, forever.” It didn’t overpromise, or even promise. It was humble. It offered hope, but tentatively. It wasn’t really a good speech, linguistically speaking; what made it good was the fact that it was given. The messenger was the message.

“I’ve been unable to stop watching TV news since the 11th,” writes Yoko Hasegawa, a professor of Japanese linguistics at Berkeley, via e-mail. She has been particularly attuned to a Web site that allows people to comment on a news stream as it is broadcast.

Before the emperor’s speech, Hasegawa recalls, there were comments speculating that the emperor had fled the country, or that he didn’t care about the disasters, because the palace was probably equipped with its own fallout shelter. But after the address, the negative comments stopped. She hasn’t seen any appear since.

One could imagine many reasons why this would be so. The most romantic interpretation is that the small, understated address meant something very big, and what it meant was what Colin Firth’s George VI said his speech meant, in a time of confusion and yet-incalculable suffering:

“The nation believes that when I speak, I speak for them.”

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