Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Symbolic Emperor

"The empty centre around which everything spins," the American journalist Patrick Smith called the institution of the Japanese Emperor. "Hollow vessels into which anything can be placed and so given meaning". We are now, going by the gengo calendar which still marks time according to imperial reigns on commuter cards, restaurant receipts and the mastiffs of newspapers, in the year of Heisei 30, yet mention of the Emperor's given name, Akihito, leaves every Japanese person I know completely bemused and even the title of his reign, which translates as Achieving Peace, brings only the mildest of recognition. "His father was Hirohito," I persist. "Showa. He married a diplomat called Michiko."

"Oh yeah, I think I know her," said one of my students eventually. "Didn't she go to Oxford University?"

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