Imperial Couple’s Visit to Nikkei Place … Atmosphere & Impressions
Japan’s Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko paid a visit to the Nikkei Place in Burnaby on July 13. It all happened very quickly and already seems like some time ago, but I had a chance to be present inside the Nikkei Heritage Centre’s main entrance hall as one of the local media while the imperial couple stopped to chat with representatives of various groups. I still retain the actual impact of seeing their familiar figures. The emperor and empress being the very living symbol of the nation of Japan, the best I can do is recount some personal feelings and impressions to the readers who span many generations and come from different national and cultural backgrounds.
An estimated crowd of 700 or so, young and old, began gathering in front of the Nikkei Centre in Burnaby about two hours earlier. As the royal couple drove up to the Centre entrance, a tension born of a collective sense of respect and indeed awe on the part of some seemed to mount. When it was punctured by a cheerful “Konnichiwa!” from a little child somewhere in the crowd, the atmosphere palpably relaxed. Taking in the two familiar figures in real life, I felt it was almost natural for a Nikkei or Japanese person to be awed by the imperial couple’s presence.
“Please be good to the old folks,” and “thank you for taking care of the old folks” were probably the words they repeated most often. The emperor himself is 76 and the empress 75. The royal couple, who might be old enough to be living in retirement had they been commoners, had come all the way to our locale to express their appreciation to Nikkei and ijusha people— that’s us!—during their grueling Canadian tour on behalf of the entire Japanese nation. If I may get personal, the emotion I felt was somewhat akin to the unforgettable joy I used to feel some years back when my ageing parents in their 70s would come and visit me in Singapore, a long way for them. This I discovered while writing this. (Would I tick off some readers if I were to add that I still don’t think of myself as a “fan of the Imperial family” as such, even though as a writer of miscellaneous items, I may take interest in them?)
I should also mention, especially for our younger readers, that during the era of the Great Japanese Empire up to the end of World War II during the reign of Emperor Hirohito, father of the present Emperor Akihito, it would have been far too disrespectful to casually write “the emperor and empress are this and that” in an open publication like this. Some 60 years later today, as one who has lived “overseas” for a long time, nevertheless, I get a strong feeling that the imperial couple and their family remain the most constant entity in Japan today. The nuance of an idealized “Nippon” is of course there as well.
The first time I became fully aware of the existence of the present emperor was when I was still in primary school and there was a festivity of some kind. So I checked and came upon his coming-of-age and ceremony of investiture as crown prince (rittaishi) in 1952. Cities and towns across Japan celebrated, hoisting up goodwill balloons and such, and the radio aired special programs. I still remember the melody of a song dedicated to the crown prince we had to learn and sing during music class.
Soon thereafter, he went on a tour of Europe and North America, his first overseas trip in 1953, during which he attended the coronation of Her Majesty Elizabeth II in London on behalf of the emperor. I remember well as my uncle happened to be a member of the Japanese media accompanying the imperial contingent. As it had been only been eight years since the end of WWII, his reception was not without tension. Looking at a photo of the then crown prince visiting Canada, carried by newspapers reporting the recent visit, one cannot help noticing the tense expressions on the faces of Canadian officials accompanying him.
In the years to follow, after his marriage to the then Ms Michiko Shoda, subsequently Princess and now Empress Michiko, the imperial couple have diligently fulfilled their heavy responsibilities, despite occasional stress-related illnesses, both at home and abroad. Their overseas trips—and only those after they became emperor and empress in the Heisei era—have covered Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia in 1991, China in 92, Belgium, Italy and Germany in 93, the US, France and Spain in 94, Brazil, Argentina, Luxemburg, Britain, Denmark and Portugal in 97, the Netherlands Sweden, Switzerland and Finland in 2000, Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Austria in 02, Norway, Ireland and Saipan Island in 05, Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia in 06, Sweden, Estonia, Latvia, Lthuania and the UK in 07 and Canada and the US (Hawaii) this time.
Quite a grueling schedule to say the least. To cite just a single example of Saipan, they distinguished themselves among Japanese “leaders” (in a broad sense of the word) including politicians to cover the island as thoroughly as they did, paying respects at all war memorials dedicated to the Japanese and Korean war dead.
I cannot write much more as it would touch on aspects of history and culture of which I’m pretty ignorant, so allow me to close with the hackneyed but frank words that I am (or we are) “sincerely grateful for all you’ve done for us” and our hope for their continued good health.