The Symbolism of Japan's Royal Family Can Prompt Us All to Stand a Little Taller

My brief contact with a few members of the Japanese Imperial family is something I will never forget.When I was in my mid-20s, I returned to the U.S. from working on the 1998 Winter Olympic Games in Nagano, Japan, through an exchange program after college. I was lucky to get a position as the executive assistant to the Japan ambassador and consul general in New York while I figured out my next steps. At the time, the father of Princess Masako (now empress of Japan), Hisashi Owada, was Japan's ambassador to the United Nations and often came to the consulate for meetings.During my time working at the consulate, Prince and Princess Hitachi, brother to Emperor Akihito and uncle to new Emperor Naruhito, visited New York and the consulate staff oversaw their schedule and logistics. One evening, Seiichiro Otsuka, Japan's ambassador and consul general, hosted a formal dinner at the official residence in the city. Staff helped with myriad tasks behind the scenes, and once Prince and Princess Hitachi arrived, we were to stand in the anteroom open to the dining room during the dinner. This was out of respect, of course, for the members of the royal family, but I thought to myself that standing up, the entire time, seemed a bit antiquated. I guess I had seen too many movies where a multitude of handlers stand behind the king and queen while they eat in a setting like the days of Marie Antoinette at the Palace of Versailles. This was, of course, very different from a movie.I don't think the Japanese government would appreciate me revealing the guest list, but it was a small group of mostly former world leaders I had only read about in history class.When Prince and Princess Hitachi arrived and entered the dining area, they were gracious and greeted each staff member before meeting their guests and taking their seats at the table. Their presence commanded respect. I soon found myself purposefully standing up even straighter, like a first-grader trying to impress the teacher.I was mesmerized by their conversation, although I definitely felt like I should pretend I was not listening out of respect. And quite frankly, they spoke softly and let the guests do most of the talking. They seemed focused on listening to others and learning about what was going on in the city to take that experience back to Japan.Two hours seemed to fly by in a few minutes and when they said their goodbyes, they also remembered to thank the staff for our hard work. I adjusted my glasses to try to hide the fact that I had teared up at the end. Inside I felt embarrassed I had even questioned standing up for the duration of the dinner. I realized that the royal family is a special symbol, and that is what I think the Japanese people want to keep. We Americans don't have anything like that, so it is an experience to see it. One could argue that the Kennedy family is close to royalty for the U.S. That was actually seen when Caroline Kennedy, former ambassador to Japan, was taken by a horse-drawn carriage to the Imperial palace in Tokyo to receive her official orders from the emperor. Although the event was purely ceremonial, U.S. ambassadors to Japan usually don't get a parade through the city on their first day.When I later moved to Tokyo as a U.S. government representative, I occasionally saw Emperor Akihito's motorcade going to and from the hospital near my apartment. It was a small convoy meant only for security, but people in Japan would stop in their tracks and pay homage as the emperor's car drove by.The royal family has a special place in Japan, particularly as the Reiwa Era begins this month with the unusual abdication of Emperor Akihito and ascension of Emperor Naruhito to the throne. The second kanji character "wa" means harmony, and the first, "rei," means good fortune, some linguists might even say "order." Reiwa was based on the introduction to a set of poems from Manyoshu, the oldest existing compilation of Japanese poetry. And one could argue that with good fortune and harmony come order.  Continue reading...

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