(October 22, 2019 / JNS) A rare, ancient ceremony seemed to send Japan back in time on Tuesday—at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo, in front of representatives of 183 countries and 2,500 guests, Naruhito was enthroned as the 126th emperor of Japan.
In honor of the celebrations, Japan declared a national holiday, and about a million people received the special gift of having their criminal records expunged.
Emperors aren’t crowned every day, and Tuesday’s event was even more special because Naruhito’s predecessor is still alive. (The last time that happened was in 1817). The Reiwa (“beautiful harmony”) era is now officially underway; the name of the era is emblazoned on official documents and comprises an inseparable part of day-to-day life in Japan.
Four hours before the ceremony began, journalists were invited to the imperial palace. Other important guests who came to Tokyo especially for the ceremony arrived relatively early: Prince Charles of Britain; the president of Afghanistan and guests from the Saudi, Bahraini, Swedish and Spanish royal families. Even Bangladesh sent its prime minister.
And Israel? Officials explained that Israel had not sent a high-ranking representative because of a conflict with the Jewish holiday of Simchat Torah. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wanted to attend, but was forced to cancel due to Israel’s political gridlock. Nevertheless, Israeli Ambassador to Japan Yaffa Ben-Ari did us proud.
The preparations were precise and well-organized. Prior to entering the palace itself, I was given a lecture about everything that would be forbidden during the ceremony. If only our children were under half the same prohibitions during the school year.
For me, the ceremony was exciting by any measure. “So, what’s he like?” my oldest daughter asked me when I told her I’d seen the emperor, something every Japanese wishes he could do. “A king,” I answered, with apologies to the emperor. That’s the whole story.
Japan’s current constitution was written in 1947, when the Americans rebuilt the nation after World War II. Since then, the emperor is not the god he used to be in the eyes of the Japanese, but the halo of glory still exists. He is worth his weight in gold—a figure admired by everyone in Japan, someone around whom they can unite and who is part of the nation’s identity. He symbolizes continuity, which is important in the constantly changing modern world.
Even though his is a symbolic role, Naruhito still holds the highest rank in the world.
The enthronement is a rare and ancient ceremony conducted according to the strict rules of the imperial standing. Along with some of my colleagues, I was permitted to enter the palace an hour before the ceremony—which took an hour-and-a-half—began. A loudspeaker transmitted instructions in Japanese and English. At one stage, the audience was asked to stand up and bow to the emperor. Foreigners didn’t have to.
The ceremony was amazing, and impressive. After we were brought into the palace, we saw how it was divided—on the right was the area where the proceedings would be held, with a window that separated the imperial family from the rest of the guests. Most of the event consisted of the ancient Shinto rites that are an inseparable part of Japanese culture.
I saw Emperor Naruhito. From afar, but I saw the last living emperor. And as befitted the occasion, most of the even was made up of the ancient Shinto rites that are an inseparable part of the Japanese enthronement.
After a lengthy silence, the new emperor was revealed to the nation. He had been concealed behind purple curtains in a special box. He stood next to the imperial throne, with the empress next to him and beside her own throne. Naruhito wore a traditional orange-brown robe, the same colors Japanese emperors have worn for their enthronements for over 1,000 years.
“I pledge hereby that I shall act according to the Constitution and fulfill my responsibility as the symbol of the State and of the unity of the people of Japan, while always wishing for the happiness of the people and the peace of the world,” Naruhito declared, reading a written proclamation.
After the declaration, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called out “Banzai!” three times. It sounded like “All hail!” or “Long live the new emperor!” but the actual meaning of the term is “10,000 years,” (or a long life for the emperor, much like the Jewish “until 120.”) Later, the army gave a 21-cannon salute.
The emperor and empress symbolize a new generation because they were both born after World War II, and there are still some who see them as a beacon of hope for a more modern era. The fact that the empress is a commoner, a former diplomat, is exciting. Since 1945, Japan has changed, but only to a certain point.
I followed the emperor as he left the hall and thought about the heavy obligations he carried. Despite his desire to be modern and the fact that he was the first heir to be taught by his parents and later educated at Oxford, he still needs to uphold protocol 24 hours a day.
The main celebration that will introduce the citizens of Japan to their new emperor and empress, a parade in Tokyo, has been postponed until Nov. 10 because of a recent typhoon. But that didn’t put a damper on the festivities. On the contrary, it may have intensified them. The whole experience was out of this world, and from another time. The past, present and future mixed together for the first time in 200 years.
Boaz Bismuth is editor in chief of Israel Hayom.
This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.
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