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

By Monica Hesse
Monday, March 21, 2011; 10:19 AM

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.

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