Early every December, the Consulate General of Japan in Denver hosts a reception to honor the Dec. 23 birthday of Emperor Akihito, which over the years has become one of the few times that Colorado's Japanese and Japanese American communities gather together. It's a festive catered affair, with Consul General Kazuaki Kubo and his wife Kazuko in traditional Japanese garb of kimono and hakama greeting guests as they arrive.
This year's birthday reception was held at the Westin Tabor Center on Dec. 2. Kubo, who's been the longest-serving Consul General since the consulate was established almost 10 years ago, gave his usual excellent speech.
It was full of historical perspective and a grasp of current, shifting geo-politics and business climate that may be a hallmark of a career diplomat but seems more passionate and learned, as if he's truly a fan of world history and politics. He also delivers his annual speeches in his excellent, vernacular English, not all stiff and formal. He's a very authentic and likable personality; the Denver Japanese community will miss him when he's rotated out of Colorado to parts unknown, which surely will happen any month now.
During his speech, the Consul General introduced a special guest of some historic note: Kosuke Kimura (shown above with the Kubos), a defender for the Colorado Rapids Major League Soccer (football in the rest of the world) team. The Rapids won the MLS Cup league championship on Nov. 21 in an overtime Finals game in Toronto against FC Dallas, 2-1, the franchise's first championship season.
His team's big win -- and his award as the Rapids' 2010 Humanitarian of the Year for his community service -- aren't the only reasons Kimura stole the spotlight after the Consul General stepped down from the podium, and spent the next hour of the reception shaking hands and signing autographs on scarps of paper, hotel napkins, invitations, whatever people pulled out of their pockets.
He was in much demand, even with people who wouldn't know soccer from, well, football, because he's the only Japanese-born player in the MLS.
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.