Guest post: abdication altercation in Tokyo

palaceWe have a guest post this week. My eldest son, Conrad Leaton Gray, is currently in Tokyo. Today he found himself unexpectedly taking a ringside seat at an historic event. He writes about the apparent age divide regarding today’s official announcement, that the Japanese Emperor is struggling to continue in his role.

I woke up this morning in the capsule hotel crawl space, as if awoken from stasis on the Starship Enterprise. The lights slowly came on in my pod as I stirred and quickly shuffled out of my personal zone (effectively a broom closet in which somebody had decided to throw a rather nice mattress). I walked into the swimming-pool-changing-room-esque hotel foyer and everything seemed entirely predictable and ordered as I got my clothes out of the obligatory storage locker.

In Japan there is always a total sense of order, as if somebody decided to turn school into a country. Things being orderly and controlled is considered the natural way of things. This understanding of order ties in closely with the importance of tradition, things are done in a particular way and differing from the norm is frowned upon in the same way one would frown upon a student in a group who leaves the rest of the group to do all the work. Everyone acts how they should so society functions normally. Whether society functioning normally is ideal is another issue entirely, and one not often considered worth mentioning.

This idea of the collective runs through Japan to its core. Even the drunken antics of young people are compartmentalised and put in particular districts at particular times. Blood runs thicker than saké, so to speak. You perform as you should and do as you must. Fulfilling one’s duty is absolute.

Today my own duty was to be a tourist. I had to do touristy things, be generally interested, and take as many photographs as was possible without my camera breaking down to the sheer heat and humidity. My intention was to go and see several notable sights around Tokyo ranging from the Shibuya crossing, to the Akihabara Electric Town, and finally to visit the Imperial Palace. Having trudged around Tokyo all day and having gotten lost several times (with little help from my phone’s online maps, which marked Shibuya crossing as being an over an hour’s walk away from where it actually was) I arrived at the Palace in all its majesty. And I just so happened to be in the right place, at the right time.

Being outside the Imperial Palace, a building that resembles the lovechild of Disneyland and a child’s playing card tower if the child then became a samurai, would have breathtaking at the best of times. Being outside it during the Emperor’s announcement today, that he was struggling with his official obligations, gave me a unique insight into peoples’ reactions to the address.

Usually the Palace’s attraction represents a point of interest for tourists, with them bumbling around bewildered at the fanfare. It also serves as a point of pride for the locals. Today, however, it served the additional purpose, this time of a symbol. It symbolised the beginning of a period of political disarray, on par if not greater than if the Queen of England herself had proposed the same thing. But, as with all things Japanese, it did so with significantly less gravitas and a far more humble approach.

Nevertheless the atmosphere of shock was palpable. Opinion as to the announcement seemed divided between the generations, like a living room filled with a family competing to play their favourite board game; Granddad’s game is old and traditional, mum’s is a bit more up-to-date but nobody besides her likes Monopoly, and the kids are intent on trying something new. Even those in the smoking areas outside the Palace had turned their heads towards it in a moment of societal reflection. Change to the social order is never considered a good thing in Japan, and to have the Emperor, the figurehead of tradition, ignite the fuse of change is unheard of. Older individuals seemed shocked. One older woman sitting outside, with a wizened look on her face and glasses thicker than the Palace walls, observed, “Things should be done as they always have been, it is tradition… tradition should not change for politics.”

This feeling was echoed by many older people I spoke with both at the Palace and around Tokyo today. Upsetting the social norms seemed to be something they were deeply afraid of, akin to worried parents scared about letting their children seeing the wrong scene in a film in case they ‘might get the wrong idea’. Beyond grumbling many felt hurt at the fact one could be too old to lead, as if they were all immortal and any discussion of degradation was taboo. However it was not an opinion that was held by younger individuals, leading more modern lives that rely less on tradition and follow traditional affairs less intently (and often don’t have the time to care for Royal matters). One man, a young businessman with a provocative hat that matched his tie,  and a constant grin attached to his wiry face, whom I spoke to at Tokyo station exemplified this by saying,”Japan is now a modern country, the emperor is very old and it makes sense for him to hand over control.”

The general consensus among the younger population of Tokyo appears to be that of respect to the Emperor and agreement that this was a wise decision, all hopeful for changes to be made to the constitution. It is easy however to see why many people are sceptical; encouraging entirely new things, such as changes to the Japanese constitution, is something which usually demands great caution. Changes to social order in Japan happen at about the same speed as it takes to set up a rail pass at the airport; you’d probably get there quicker if you set off straight away going by mule. But whether young peoples’ progressive opinions are enough considering Japan’s largely ageing demographics is another matter entirely.

It’s also notable that these are only the opinions of those who live in central Tokyo, the opinions of other cities and of rural Japan are likely to be more conservative. Therefore the Emperor’s address runs the risk of being extremely  controversial. And the Japanese are not fans of controversy. You’d probably have an easier time of going around asking if anyone would like a firecracker suppository than asking them to speak against the grain.

Whatever the outcome, this announcement is bound to lead to significant changes in Japanese politics. Every person here in Tokyo has thoughts on the matter, and no outcome will please everyone. The eyes of the world, particularly of Japan, watch intently.


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