Emperors Birthday

So last Saturday was the birthday of the Emperor of Japan (天皇誕生日), and as per custom, thousands of people flocked to the Imperial Palace in the Chiyoda Ward of downtown Tokyo to celebrate. Well, perhaps “celebrate” is too strong a word, but whatever the motivation, thousands of people showed up to hear him speak and wish him a happy birthday.

Emperor's Birthday

The approach to the interior of the Imperial Palace

The way it goes down is that usually members of the general public are not allowed inside the inner grounds of the Imperial Palace – you can walk around the outskirts and admire the ubiquitous yellow gray dead grass that seems to populate any of the rare areas not covered in concrete here in Japan, but “the goods”, if you will, are off limits except for the 2nd of January and of course, the Emperor’s birthday.

Since I’m all about doing this shizzle National Geographic on Assignment style and also because you all voted, I grabbed my new baby, which I clearly have no idea how to use, as you can see by the remarkably crap photos filling this blog:

Emperor's Birthday

Japan’s Finest, on Patrol

Panda: “Wait, it’s all black!! All BLACK!!
Nearby Real Photographer: “Umm, you have your lens cap still on”
Panda: (slapping head) “Haha! You’re right! Silly me! Oh… wait… why doesn’t the picture show up on the LCD?”
Nearby Increasingly Exasperated Real Photographer: “… you have to look through the viewfinder and focus through there.”
Panda: “Wait, you mean I can’t focus using the LCD? What the hell kind of crap camera makes you look through the viewfinder…!?
Nearby By Now Homicidal Real Photographer: “Kid, who the hell gave you access to a $900 camera…?”

(by the way, you only think I’m joking about actually leaving the lens cap on. Michaelpanda: making comedic slapstick cliches come true in real life since 2001)

Anyway, so as I was saying, I took my camera and woke myself up at a rather ungodly hour and via a combination of bus, train and subway, showed up bright and early at the palace gates at around 10am.

Emperor's Birthday

Early Morning Bus Ride

Those of you passingly familiar with Japanese history may recall that up until right around the end of World War II, the Emperor of Japan was considered to be a god (though his actual power fluctuated through the ages) – obviously this is no longer true, though many Japanese (particularly the older ones) love to regale you with tales of the supposed unbroken linneage of the Chrysanthemum Throne stretching back 2000+ years to the very first mythical Emperor Jimmu, said to have been descended from the Sun Goddess Amaterasu herself. You are not so likely to hear these stories from younger Japanese among whom interest in the Emperor and Imperial famiy is quite low, however. Nonetheless, the Emperor continues to be a symbol of Japan, and thus as one might expect, security at the palace was incredibly “tight” for all the people coming in.

Now you will notice the word “tight” is in quotes, and I will explain why in just a moment. The first thing that struck me the second I rolled up from the depths of the subway was that I had never seen this many J-police in one place before. Not only was the place literally swarming with them, in their decidedly costume-looking navy blue outfits (complete with impossibly cute hats for the female officers), they were, for once, not sitting behind their desk chainsmoking or walking around taking measurements of the distance to random building walls. In case you’re wondering about that rather bitterish tone creeping into my normally sweet-as-caramel syrup panda tone, I direct you a few posts back wherein the compentency (and basic mental faculties) of Japan’s thin blue line was called into question as they strived to solve the mystery of how to take a report about my stolen bike (forget about actually finding it).

Emperor's Birthday

Crowds begin to gather

But perhaps I’m being too harsh. After all, I am an American, and as such I’ve been socialized to think that the police just aren’t police unless they’re actively kicking in doors, beating random passing (minority) motorists in full view of cameras, tear gassing anti globalization protesters, etc. So it is possible that I’m being biased here – after all, at least the J-cops were out, not being particularly annoying and even a fair number of them were shouting instructions into megaphones and manning an automated sign showing the emperor’s scheduled speaking times with a dedication and seriousness normally reserved for neurosurgeons performing brain transplants. And all that without tasering someone to death as usually happens back in America.

Anyway, in order to gain entry to the interior of the Palace grounds, you had to divide up into two different lines depending on whether you had any bags with you or not. Since I had my camera and a messenger bag with me, I popped over into the right hand lane to get my baggage inspected.

Emperor's Birthday

The crowd swells behind me…

Now at this point I’d like to briefly explain how I was kitted up this particular day. It was cold as hell, so I had a long black thick woolen overcoat, buttoned up, with a thick black scarf wrapped around my neck and tucked into the coat. Underneath I had long thick pants, a white dress shirt, a green woolen vest, also thick, and boots. I had on gloves and had an ipod tucked into my interior breast pocket with the ear phones snaking up to either side of my head. I didn’t look suspicious, but I did look hella bulky and it would have been pretty damn easy to sneak at least 5 or 6 guns (or 11 or 12 – click for video!) in under all those layers.

In front, I had my camera hanging from my neck, and slung from my shoulder I had a big brown messenger bag. Inside was a couple of small notebooks, my mobile phone, my wallet, a PDA, a few little random assorted things like lip balm, tissues, etc. and – and this is the important part readers – a case for my digital SLR camera. This case is not a small thing – it is made to fit the camera with a medium length lens attached and as such is easily large enough for a handgun or perhaps a couple of grenades. This case was zipped up and laying inside the main messenger bag compartment.

I roll up to the security gate and the young female officer waves me forward to inspect my baggage. As an aside, while in America we generally go with the biggest, meanest most bruisingnest-looking motherf-kers we can find to work security, generally equipped with semi-automatic assault rifles and shotguns, here in Japan, you often find young women – complete with aforementioned incredibly cute hat – assigned to jobs that involve inspected members of the general public such as airline gate security or in this case, people trying to enter the imperial palace. I find that if I was a hardened terrist (the idea that I could be a hardened anything is laughable since if there’s one thing I’ve made a virtue of it’s doing the bare minimum possible. Fanaticism is just too much damn work for me.) I would be considerably less intimidated about clearing security in Japan versus America.

Emperor's Birthday

Right Wingers professing their support of the Emperor even while checking their text messages…

Anyway, so I plop my bag on the table, along with my camera. The officer flips open the main messenger bag compartment, zips it half open and peers inside. She quickly paws through the front pockets, inspects my lipbalm (!??) for about 3 seconds, then gives me the A-Ok. She doesn’t even so much as glance at my camera (which is hefty) or even seem to notice the black camera case inside the messenger bag…! (remember the part about “it could hold two hand grenades or a gun?”)

I look at her.

Panda: “Umm, do you need to check my camera or the camera case?”
Officer: (looking back at me) “Oh, your camera? No, it’s okay, you can take photos inside!”
Panda: “….”
Officer: “Just walk that way for the body check and then you can get in.”

Shrugging, I take my messenger bag and sling it around my shoulder, safe (and entirely perturbed) at the though that had I wanted to sneak a couple of tools of assassination into the palace, I would pretty much have just completed my mission successfully.

Emperor's Birthday

The Emperor appears…

I head over to the body check where another young female officer motions me over. I stand, and stretch out my arms, and she gives me a half hearted pat on the top of my shoulders, upper back, outside of my thighs and the back of my calves (!??), all accompanied by apologies for the inconvenience (at least they apologize here, unlike America where I remain too terrified to say anything as they mutely manhandle me, lest I accidentally “get peppered real good” (as Cheney would say) by a shotgunner with an itchy trigger finger). Then, satisfied, she waves me on forward to the last security check up ahead.

So just to review:

Places where had I hidden my gun it would have been found:

  1. Strapped to my triceps/possibly deltoids
  2. Taped to my upper back.
  3. Stapled to the outside of my things.
  4. Superglued to my upper calves.

Emperor's Birthday

…and the crowd goes wild.

Places where I had I hidden my gun I could have successfully snuck it through:

  1. Stuck in my waistband
  2. In shoulder holsters under my armpits.
  3. Strapped to my stomach (aka a suicide bomber belt)
  4. In a holster on my hips
  5. In a holster in the small of my back
  6. Strapped to the inside of my thighs
  7. In the crotch of some baggy jeans had I been wearing them.
  8. In an ankle holster
  9. In Kepplinger-style holdouts strapped to my inner forearm, go-go Gadget style.

*sigh* The last security check momentarily props up my faltering faith in the ability of the J-police to protect the Emperor as it consisted of a young lady with a hand held metal detector, but when it fails to go off when waved over the ipod in my breast pocket, the metal rivets or rather heavy metal buckle of my belt, the metal O-ring of the harness on my boots, or even – and perhaps most disturbingly – the rather large digital SLR camera hanging around my chest (which most definitely contains a lot of metal), I kind of just give up all hope and pray that no one’s planning on blowing up the palace while I’m inside.

Emperor's Birthday

Flags flying high

Japan, you are lucky I am not a supar sekrat agent for the North Koreans or else all j00r emperors would belong to me.

After clearing “security”, I joined the crowds of people shuffling along towards the central area under the main (bulletproof) window from which the Emperor was going to speak. Over the course of approximately 2 hours, the Emperor was scheduled to speak 3 times. I showed up at 10:30, after his first speech, but in time for the second one at 11:05.

Now “speech” might also be a rather generous term. I’m not sure what I expected (perhaps a deep and philosophical discussion on the nature of humanity or reflections on Japan’s glorious history? Perhaps he’d reveal some secret about the Three Imperial Treasures which only he is allowed to see?), but I was pretty excited. The Emperor of Japan!! Speaking! And I could hear!!

Emperor's Birthday

…focusing on what’s important…

Okay, so I’m being slightly facetious. While it was great to be able to have a chance to hear him speak, I was there more to see the much vaunted interior of the Imperial Palace, which turned out – as you can see – to be not all that impressive. Personally I think the Emperor should ditch the Kokyo for the infinitely more interesting and awesome looking domain of Shirasagi Castle in Himeji. At least the crowd didn’t disappoint – as you can see from the pictures, by the time 11:00 rolled around, I was surrounded by a virtual sea of people, stretching from end to end. Countless paper Japanese flags handed out by volunteers on the palace grounds stood tightly gripped in clenched fists, ready to be hefted skyward at the first sign of his appearance.

All was not entirely serious however – one of my favorite scenes was this shot above, of two little boys sitting on the ground, oblivious to the surging throes of patriotism around them, and leaving no doubt as to where, exactly, their priorities lie:

Emperor's Birthday

Enthusiastic support…

Ever Japanese, at 11:05 on the dot, up in the distance above, a paper screen slid open and the Emperor appeared, flanked by the Crown Prince Naruhito and Princess Masako (darling of the Japanese eye, though their daughter Aiko was nowhere to be found) on his right, and his wife, Empresses Michiko (the first commoner to marry into the Imperial family), followed by Prince and Princess Akishino on his left. The latter pair just recently gave birth to the first male – Prince Hisahito – to be born into the Imperial family in over 40 years, narrowly averting a succession crisis that had resulted in both a public clamour for an amendment to the succession laws to allow for female inheritance of the throne as well as more whacked out calls for the Prince to exercise a clause laid out in the older Meiji-constitution permitting him to take a concubine in order to produce a male heir. Mmm. Well done kid.

Emperor's Birthday

More banzai…

I will tell you this – the Emperor speaks (obviously) impeccable Japanese. Slow slow sloooow as he (all imperial family members?) is well known for, but beautiful. And surprisingly understandable. I was expecting incomprehensible super refined philosophical insight that would go over my head, what I got was an entirely accessible transcript that went something like:
“Thank you all for coming out for my birthday. It means a lot to me and my wife to have such support from the people. Something something health is important. Japan is awesome.” (I may have adlibbed that last part, as my memory fails me (^_^)v).

Emperor's Birthday

The depressing concrete ride home…

After the emperor stopped speaking, the crowd erupted into cries of “Banzai“, thrusting the flags into the sky (one enthusiastic man threw his hat up in lieu of a flag), waving and shouting. As the people chanted below, the Imperial family panned slowly from left to right, waving their hands in identical waves which I swear are drilled into them by the Imperial Family Agenc, because everyone of them does it exactly the same way every single time you see them on TV, a sort of a straight hand up slightly cupped and waving left to right on the wrist axis.

And then, not more than two minutes after he appeared, the Emperor and his family disappeared behind the paper screen, the cries of banzai ceased, and the people quietly turned and shuffled out towards the exit, leaving one very very confused panda going “wait… I got out of bed for just that…!?“.

Emperor's Birthday

Sun dappled panda…

And that, ladies and gentleman, was the Emperor’s birthday. Afterward, I came home and slept curled up panda-style in the one sun dappled window-pane shaped sunny warm spot on my futon. It was incredibly cute, trust me.

way out west - intensify

Now listening to: “Way out West – Mindcircus”

Almost, ready to drift now,
And I feel myself slipping inside you,
Oh just a little bit further,
before something drags me back,
You’re so close,
I thought I nearly had you there

I’m so tired, I gotta sleep,
I wanna wake up from a dream,
I’ve had enough, I need to sleep,
I wanna wake up without you, yeah

So come along within
I think it’s time to let me in,
I’m tipping my foot very close to the edge,
And just a few more of your seconds,
And I need for me to repair
To neatly stand and spin it around in my head,

Oh can i please have some silence?
How about some space?
Oh can i please have some silence?
Can i have some space?

67 Reactions

  1. moritheil

    The exchange about photography is so cringe-inducing, yet so authentic! The description of the two boys playing their DSes, oblivious to the nationalist furor engulfing them, is a perfect moment.
    Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, and kudos on an excellently written report!

  2. andrew

    shin-nen akemashite omedetou gozaimasu!
    sounds like an interesting morning. You are a good writer.
    Are you going to try to go again in Jan 2? (hahahahaha)
    I hope you have a relaxing New Years week.
    Take care

  3. kittay

    they didnt by any chance sell some special Emperor & empress hello kittys there did they? i need more kitty & daniel speciality pairs. grrr. you ignored all my text messages yesterday! Even the ring wing guy replies when he gets mail!! bad panda. happy new year.

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