Happy birthday to Emperor Akihito of Japan

The bow seen

We attended a birthday party of sorts last night, except there was no cake. Ever since Japan stationed a Consulate General in Denver, there has been an annual gathering of invited guests to mark the birthday of Akihito, the current Emperor of Japan.

Royal birthdays are probably celebrated in the few countries that still have a monarch. For instance, the Queen of England’s birthday is April 21 and it’s officially celebrated on the third Saturday of June. But Japan is the only country in the world that has an Emperor as its titular head of state.

The role of Emperor is hugely important in Japan — so much so that after World War II, when many wanted to prosecute then-emperor Hirohito, the Allied Occupation Forces led by U.S. General Douglas MacArthur, who’s still fondly remembered by many Japanese as the “Gaijin (Foreigner) Emperor,” decided to allow Hirohito to remain in power even though the country was drafting a new, democratic constitution. Abolishing the royal structure and prosecuting Hirohito would have been too deep a disruption of Japanese society at a time when they needed to unite and pull the country out of the postwar ruins.

So the Emperor became a symbolic head of state, with no actual ruling power. That’s in the hands of the Diet, or parliament, and the prime minister.

Hirohito died in 1989, and Akihito, his son, succeeded to the throne the same year. Japan’s Imperial Household is the oldest continuing hereditary monarchy in the world, with a straight line drawn from Emperor Jimmu in 660 AD to Akihito today.

As a reflection of the Emperor’s importance in Japan, the country measures its eras and years by Imperial rule. You may have heard of the “Meiji Restoration,” the period of the late 1800s when Japan became westernized. Those were years when Mutsuhito, better known as the Meiji Emperor ran Japan from 1868-1912. After his death, his son Yoshihito only briefly ruled Japan as the Taisho Emperor.

Each emperor is given a symbolic name — Hirohito was called the Showa emperor, translated as “period of enlightened peace,” and Akihito the Heisei emperor, or “peace everywhere.” America’s involvement in World War II began in December, 1941, which was the 16th year of Hirohito’s rule, or in Japan, “Showa 16.” I’ve heard a lot of Japanese refer to years as “Showa this” or “Heisei that.” This closing year, 2009, equates to Heisei 21.

The Japanese Emperor’s not an active political leader. In fact he’s more a symbolic ruler and a role model, albeit one treated with utmost respect: He’s referred to as “His Imperial Majesty the Emperor.” Akihito is known as a thoughtful scientist and shares his father Hirohito’s interest in marine biology, writing articles for scholarly journals. He even has a fish named after him, a recently discovered strain of Goby that’s now called Exyrias Akihito in his honor.

Last month, there was a great uproar within conservative American ranks when President Obama bowed deeply to “His Imperial Majesty the Emperor” when he stopped in Japan during a tour of Asia (photo at top).

I thought it was great, because it was simply a show of respect that any Japanese would give if he were so honored as to meet the Emperor. Although some people think the United States is the biggest and strongest and best country in the world and by bowing, Obama showed weakness, I thought it was great to have an American President who doesn’t see the world from a self-centered and unilateral perspective.

Akihito came to the U.S. with Empress Michiko in a rare tour of American cities that included a stop in Denver. I was the entertainment editor for the Colorado Springs Gazette at the time, but I got to cover the Imperial visit with a Japanese reporter who was working for the Gazette in an exchange program. They were followed by dozens of Japanese reporters and photographers the whole time, and it was as close to meeting royalty as I’ll probably ever get.

It was a great several days of madness, chasing after royalty as the couple visited Sakata Farms in Brighton, a successful farm operated by Japanese American Bob Sakata, stayed with friends in Longmont and drove through Rocky Mountain National Park. The Empress freaked out her security entourage and sent the Japanese press corps into a frenzy when she stopped the limo and climbed out to walk through a high country pasture of spring flowers.

It was a cool, authentic moment amidst a strict itinerary of formal and pre-packaged stops and photo opps.

Anyway, we gathered last night to pay tribute to the Emperor. His actual birthday is December 23, but the Consulate in Denver has held its celebration in early December, probably as a way to avoid conflicts with holiday travel and other plans that invited guests might have.

Last night’s event was held at the Westin Tabor Center hotel, in a large ballroom where several hundred people milled around and networked. It’s a nice event because although the Japanese and Japanese American communities don’t always mix, the Consulate makes an effort to invite leaders from both the resident Japanese community (mostly business people) and prominent JAs, and everyone comes together in one room. (Erin and I are the out-of-place mutts wandering the room.) The Consul General’s staff is also really good about inviting leaders from the larger Asian American Pacific Islander community, so we saw Chinese, Koreans and other AAPIs.

As people walked in, Consul General Kazuaki Kubo and his wife Kazuko graciously greeted guests (she wore a beautiful red kimono with a floral pattern). Both are down-to-earth people and veterans of the Japanese diplomatic corps. The Consul General is also a pretty damned funny guy, who sometimes looks disheveled like an absent-minded professor. Mrs. Kubo is a gracious, lovely woman who seems warm and genuine. They’ve been stationed in Denver for three years now, and its good to have them here.

Last year, Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper and Colorado Governor Bill Ritter gave speeches at the Emperor’s birthday party, but this year, both were out of town. Consul General Kubo gave a very good speech that was articulate and well-crafted (and diplomatic when it needed to be, describing some of the rough patches that U.S.-Japan relations have gone through), about Japan and Colorado’s long-standing relationship, as well as the larger and longer relationship between our two countries. One point that got the most spontaneous response from the crowd was the mention by kubo as well as Eric Hiraga, who works at Denver International Airport and was there to read out loud Mayor Hickenlooper’s proclamation marking the day as an official Denver celebration of the Emperor’s birthday, of proposed non-stop flights between Denver and Japan.

The Consul General seemed surprised, and appreciative when I told him afterwards that I thought he’d written an eloquent speech. Very Japanese — self-deprecating and deflecting compliments.

But he did so with a twinkle in his eye that told me he knows exactly how good his speech was.

It’s too bad that there wasn’t a Consular office in Denver back when when Akihito visited in 1994. SAt the time, we had an Honorary Consul General, the longtime Japanese American journalist Bill Hosokawa, and it was because of Bill’s efforts that the Japanese government decided to establish a permanent consulate here.

I’m sure if Akihito came now, and saw Consul-General Kubo at work, he’d appreciate how his birthday was celebrated — and leveraged as a way of underscoring strong relations between Japan and Colorado — under Kubo’s amiable leadership.

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5 Responses to Happy birthday to Emperor Akihito of Japan

  1. George Niles says:

    Curious… why did you choose that photo? I believe there are more appropriate pictures of the Emperor.

  2. Gil Asakawa says:

    Hi George, I used it because I mention the bowing incident in the post, and the other photos of the Emperor are pro-forma smiling head shots. I found a cool photo of the Emperor and Empress Michiko when they were married in 1959, wearing traditional Imperial garb, but it had an AP copyright on it.

  3. George Niles says:

    I wouldn’t call it an “incident”, but I believe the Prez is going out of his way to be respectful and overly PC toward other cultures especially after the last administration.

    As you know, how deeply you bow is pretty much how “subservient” you are to the person. I think he shouldn’t bow as deeply. Additionally, you don’t shake hands and bow. It is not entirely incorrect but it is also not totally correct either. Furthermore, I think trying to emulate another culture’s traditions is pretty much akin to fish out of water. The natives can tell if you’re genuine or not. It’s always good to be respectful but let’s not over do it.

    Food for thought: Did the Emperor get his [subconscious] revenge of dissing the Prez when the way McArthur treated father when they first met? 😉

  4. George Niles says:

    CORRECTED VERSION

    I wouldn’t call it an “incident”, but I believe the Prez is going out of his way to be respectful and overly PC toward other cultures especially after the last administration.

    As you know, how deeply you bow is pretty much how “subservient” you are to the person. I think he shouldn’t bow as deeply. Additionally, you don’t shake hands and bow. It is not entirely incorrect but it is also not totally correct either. Furthermore, I think trying to emulate another culture’s traditions is pretty much akin to fish out of water. The natives can tell if you’re genuine or not. It’s always good to be respectful but let’s not over do it.

    Food for thought: Did the Emperor get his [subconscious] revenge of dissing the Prez on the way McArthur treated his father when they first met? 😉

  5. Gil Asakawa says:

    Good points, George. I think it’s quite possible that Obama is being extra-accommodating to other cultures in his attempts o mend relationships around the world. And it’s true, the level of the bow was too low from someone of his stature (I wonder if he wasn’t thinking so much about how far he bowed, as how tall he was and he wanted to bow down to the emperor’s height?). But I still applaud him for making these PC and culturally sensitive efforts.

    As for your point about Hirohito and MacArthur, that’s interesting. For those who don’t know, the first time Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who was assigned to head the Occupation government led by the U.S. in Japan, he posed himself in a photo with Hirohito in which the emperor was stiff and in full formal dress, while the general was in relaxed in khakis with his arms behind his back, and the juxtaposition of the two made Hirohito look puny and almost laughable. It caused a controversy in Japan, and looking back, I bet anyone who complained about Obama’s bow would love that poto of MacArthur and Akihito’s father.

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