Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Tokyo Vacation Part 4: The Imperial Palace

On January 2nd, 2012, I made a short trek from my hotel to the Tokyo Imperial Palace, located in Chiyoda-ku. The palace and its grounds were built atop the remains of the former Edo Castle, after the Emperor of the time left Kyoto (the former capital) for Tokyo. The grounds are massive, spanning nearly three square miles, and contain not only the Imperial Family's housing but also archives, a museum, and the original diet building.

 The Imperial Family makes public appearances only two days a year: on the Emperor's birthday, December 23rd, and on January 2nd, for a New Years Declaration. This year, the message was one of peace. Along with thousands of others, over the course of an entire day, I trekked through the Imperial Grounds and waited in a crowd outside the main palace. Eventually, the Imperial Family appeared in a bullet-proof, glass-encased balcony. From there, they waved to the crowd while the Emperor made his speech. I was not the only foreigner in attendance.

There must have been dozens more like me, eager to get a look at real royalty. In fact, all of my Japanese coworkers tell me they have never gone to see the Emperor, and rarely do they watch or listen to the Emperor's speech during broadcast. It seems that the exoticism is more of a tourist attraction than an actual cultural affair. That's not to say that the Japanese don't care about the Emperor, or that they lack patriotism--there were plenty of flag-waving citizens to support both points.

After the ceremony, I took a short tour of the grounds, gaining access to areas that are normally restricted to civilians. The picture above is of the "Fuji Mountain Viewing Tower," which suggests it was constructed only to have an excellent view of Japan's most famous mountain. The tour is such a staple for tourists that the palace guards offer English-translated audio guides for guys like me. It was a real advantage, as the tour guide never repeated himself or answered questions. I was able to re-listen to tracks to find the information I wanted.

This building is the former home of the Privy Council of Japan, an advisory organization for the Emperor that disbanded in 1947, in the aftermath of WWII. Although some state that pre-war, the Privy Council was the most powerful agency of the Meiji Government, the fact is that it was a largely inconsequential organization due to the overwhelming influence of party-nominated government figures.

Finally, this is the Imperial Household Agency, the building where all affairs relating to the Imperial Family are handled. During WWII, the palace sustained heavy damage from air raids, and the Emperor's family was temporarily relocated to this building. Even now, it exists to aid Imperial Family members in performing their duties as figureheads of Japan.

The tour and the speech were quite interesting, as most of the studying I've done regarding Japanese history relates to politics, not actual historical events. Anyone who decides to visit Tokyo could do worse than to take this one-a-year opportunity to glance at real royalty.

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