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Friday, October 22, 1999

In which the Temple Guy "Meets" the Emperor and Empress of Japan

It's ironic that my first official post on the new The Temple Guy blog is not about temples at all (although a Shinto shrine does make an appearance).

My excuse, though, is a good one: I am writing this post on May 1, 2019, as Japan enters a new era. Emperor Akihito abdicated yesterday and the Heisei Era came to an end; he and the lovely missus are now His Imperial Majesty The Emperor Emeritus and Her Imperial Majesty The Empress Emerita.

Today, then, the former Crown Prince Naruhito ascends to the Chrysanthemum Throne, #126, they say, in an unbroken chain stretching back to the legendary Emperor Jimmu (660-585 BCE), who was the great-great-great-grandson of the sun goddess Amaterasu, as well as a descendant of the storm god Susanoo. Naruhito's wife becomes Empress Masako. The Reiwa Era now begins.

In this post, I take you back to October of 1999. I actually wrote this piece a couple of years ago on another huge project yet to be announced; it was part of a piece on the samurai Miyamoto Musashi, who wrote his famed Book of Five Rings in a cave (which I have visited) above Kumamoto, where this story takes place.

I hope you enjoy it. And welcome to the new, improved TheTempleGuy website!

A lantern reading "Welcome"
(This and the banner photographed
in my home, September 2017)
Oddly, though I lived and worked in the Tokyo area during my five years in Japan and passed the Imperial Palace scads of times, I had my only "close encounter" with the then-current Emperor of Japan--the son of the one who presided over the Manchurian invasion and Pearl Harbor--in Kumamoto, on Kyushu, the southernmost of Japan's four main islands. The company I worked for in Tokyo sent me there to teach English to tax officers four times, for a week each; I was there  in October, 1999, when a National Sports Festival (or something) was held. The night before the event was to start, I was staying in a government-owned ryokan (inn) out the window of which I could see the Castle, and I noticed a huge crowd gathering in the area. Curious, I went out and discovered that the Imperial Couple was to make an appearance--sadly, in a hotel window, many floors up, and very hard to see.
The kind soul who gave me my lantern and flag
(Author's photo, October 1999)
But a lovely old man thrust a flag into my right hand and a candle-and-paper lantern into my left, and en masse we practiced simultaneously waving the flag, raising the lantern, and chanting "Tenno heika! Kogo heika! BANZAI! BANZAI! BANZAI!" more or less meaning "Long Live the Emperor and Empress!" Sure enough, once we had been drilled sufficiently (the Japanese aren't big on spontaneity), the lights went on in a window where the Couple waved stiffly side-by-side, we chanted, the lights went out, and people began to wander off.

The Imperial Couple in the hotel window
(scanned from a local newspaper)
(Next day's newspaper said there were 6,000 in attendance--or, as I explained to my friends, "5,999 Japanese and me." The same paper had photos of the Imperial Couple visiting museums and rest homes, and planting a tree. It was a Big Deal.)
Some of the 5,999 Japanese people in attendance
(Author's photo, October 1999)
But the adventure wasn't over.

As I joined in the festivities, I couldn't help noticing dozens of swanky-looking banners hanging around the area to commemorate the Imperial Visit. The red letters across the top read "Celebration," and running vertically below them in black were the words "Tenth Year of the Coronation of His Majesty the Emperor."

I still have
my banner
Determined to get my hands on one, I snuck out of the ryokan in the wee hours, planning to steal one, only to discover that an army of police was stationed at "parade rest" about 15 feet apart all along the area's sidewalks. Mission aborted.

The next day, though, I happened upon an old man taking one down. Girding up my loins, I strode boldly up to him, and in my worst Japanese (intended to elicit pity) stumbled out a request: "Excusing me, sir, but possible is to getting that?" He started to expound on why this simply wouldn't be possible, but perceiving the (not-entirely-fake) foolish look on my face, shrugged in resignation and forked it over. (I still have it.)

Returning triumphantly to my company's office the following Monday, I started to unroll it to show my boss when he made a warding-off gesture and hissed, "James-san! James-san! Put that away! Don't show it here!" It turns out the banner, and the sponsors of the rally I took part in (though not all the participants) were cadres of a nationalistic right-wing movement of which the loyal samurai Musashi would likely have approved.
Banners hanging next to the gate of the small shrine
at Kumamoto Castle (Author's photo, October 1999)

Last updated May 1, 2019

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