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In this photo released by the Imperial Household Agency, Japan's Emperor Akihito poses with Empress Michiko for a photograph at East Gardens of Imperial Palace in Tokyo Monday, Dec. 1, 2008. (AP)
In this photo released by the Imperial Household Agency, Japan's Emperor Akihito poses with Empress Michiko for a photograph at East Gardens of Imperial Palace in Tokyo Monday, Dec. 1, 2008. (AP)

Japan's Royal Couple

Canadian visit a break from cloistered existence Add to ...

When Japan's Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko land in Canada tomorrow, it will be a rare and nostalgic break from life in what must be the world's biggest bubble.

The couple have spent most of the past two decades living a largely cloistered existence inside the sprawling grounds of Tokyo's Imperial Palace, a picturesque but remote world that is separated from the city around it by an eight-metre-high stone wall and a dozen moats.

Life among the 114 hectares of forests and carefully manicured gardens is a splendid isolation, but isolation nonetheless. Given a rare peek inside the bubble, what strikes one first is the stillness and silence that is life in this forbidden city.

There are few cars, and nary a honk. Tourists can visit only a small corner of the densely forested pre-industrial city within a city that is the Imperial Gardens. The palace itself is strictly off limits to the public for all but two days a year. Nor do the Emperor and Empress often venture into the world beyond the moats and walls that surround them.

"They very seldom go into the city, if you mean the shopping areas and things like that," said Makato Watanabe, a close adviser of the Emperor and a veteran member of the Imperial Household Agency, the publicity-shy team of some 1,200 mandarins that in effect manages the lives and public image of Emperor Akihito, Empress Michiko and their children and grandchildren.

Mr. Watanabe's office is in the IHA building, with a large window that fittingly gives him a view of the comings and goings at the white-walled, green-roofed palace next door. Though Mr. Watanabe, a charming, old-fashioned man who hastens to put on a tie before sitting down to chat with a foreign reporter, acknowledges the need for the Imperial Family to evolve and become more open, another member of the IHA once boasted to a reporter that nine out of 10 requests from the Imperial Family - some on matters as mundane as wanting to visit a bookstore - were rejected.

It's a situation that has caused more than one of the Emperor's relatives to go stir-crazy, and has led to accusations in the Japanese media that both the Imperial Family and the Imperial Household Agency are out of touch and heading towards irrelevance.

"I dare say that youngsters have not much interest in or knowledge of the Imperial Family's background and history, or even the Emperor as a symbolic ruler," said Takao Toshikawa, a Tokyo-based political analyst.

As his reign enters its twilight, Akihito is an Emperor without an empire, a ruler without any formal powers even in Japan, and with little control over even his private life.

The 125th Emperor of Japan, he is the first to have never claimed any divinity, and the first who actually has to pay attention to what the people think, the result of a post-Second World War constitution - written under American supervision - that forced Akhito's father, Hirohito, to renounce his status as a living god and place the sovereign power that had rested with his family for hundreds of years into the hands of the Japanese people.

"The constitution is as clear as day. The future of the monarchy rests on the will of the people. They know that if the people ever turn on them, the institution could be abolished," said Kenneth Ruoff, author of The People's Emperor: Democracy and the Japanese Monarchy . "They have to keep their poll numbers up."

Naysayers aside, under Akihito the poll numbers have remained high, with one recent survey suggesting that some 80 per cent of Japanese approve of the Imperial Family. The Emperor's backers politely point out that the Imperial Family is a badly needed rock of stability in a country increasingly beset by economic crisis and political turmoil.

Indeed, Akihito and Michiko will leave a country hit hard by the global economic crisis and an absence of leadership. Unemployment and homelessness are on the rise, and the Emperor's first task upon his return will likely be one of his few remaining political duties, to dissolve parliament and send the country into an election campaign that will likely end with the swearing-in of Japan's fifth prime minister in three years.

"Prime ministers change almost every year in Japan, and there have been very rough economic changes and so forth. People feel very uneasy about the present and future. The Imperial Family, which has a history of perhaps 1,300 or 1,400 years - people look to them as a sign of stability," Mr. Watanabe said, referring to the Emperor's lineage, which some argue can be traced back to 660 BC. For centuries, the Imperial Family claimed to be direct descendents of the sun goddess.

Family matters are nearly as complicated. Some observers detect a rift between Akihito's oldest son, Crown Prince Naruhito, and his brother Prince Akishino. Naruhito has been scolded by both his brother and the IHA for visiting his father too infrequently.

Some would like to see Naruhito decline the throne when the time comes in favour of his younger brother, who conveniently also has the son - Japanese law dictates that only males can inherit the Chrysanthemum Throne - that Naruhito does not. Rumours of a breakdown have followed Naruhito's wife, the Harvard-educated Princess Masako, who gave birth to one daughter, but came under enormous pressure to produce a male heir.

Concerned for his family's future, Emperor Akihito is said by his doctors to be suffering from "mental agony." His old confidant, Mr. Watanabe, admits that "physically, I see the signs of long years of hard work" on the Emperor. The IHA announced earlier this year that it would cut back the Emperor's official schedule and have him attend far fewer religious rituals.

Thus, the 12-day trip to Canada that begins tomorrow will be a trip back to perhaps a slightly more carefree time for Emperor Akihito, who first visited the country in 1953 as a 19-year-old Crown Prince.

On his way to attend the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, Akihito travelled by sea to San Francisco, then to Victoria, where he spent the night at the residence of the lieutenant-governor of British Colombia. He then took the train across Canada from Vancouver to Toronto. Now 75, he'll be retracing some of that journey, this time with the 74-year-old Empress Michiko at his side, during a trip that begins in Ottawa, then continues to Toronto, Vancouver and Victoria.

"Canada has special meaning for this Emperor, and perhaps for the Imperial Family, because Canada was the first country he visited overnight in his whole life," Mr. Watanabe said.

"He still remembers that trip very well. It was the first overseas trip he made, at 19."

When the nostalgic tour - which also includes a stopover in Hawaii - is over, it's back to the life's work of reinventing what a Japanese Emperor is and can be.

"The present Emperor has started with a new role. He has been exploring that day after day. For him, it's not a theoretical question; it's a question of what he does if something happens today," said Mr. Watanabe, a former ambassador to Jordan who speaks the English he learned decades ago from a Canadian missionary in Tokyo.

"Basically, he has accepted that fate, but whatever he does can get criticized from the right, from the left, by traditionalists, by feminists. In that way, this has been rather a difficult voyage through rough seas, but I think he has survived."

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