Dispatch from Tokyo: Is the Sun Setting on Japan’s Monarchy?
The epic pedestrian scramble at Tokyo's Shibuya crossing. (Photo: Nikada/Getty Images)
As an aging emperor prepares to step down, we look at what the monarchy means to Japan and its society of elders over which he reigns.
It enthrals as much as it confounds: Japan’s mega-troprolis.
On the you-got-me part of the deal, during a week-long visit to Tokyo last year, I did all the unmissable things: from checking out the iconic pedestrian scramble at Shibuya Crossing, where for nearly one minute, when the lights turn red, five separate crosswalks flood onto the street in a buckshot of humanity (and in the most stirring form of organized chaos you can imagine) to visiting the world’s largest fish market known as Tsukiji, through which some 2,000 tons of seafood is funnelled each and every day (a must-be-seen-to-be-believed crush of fishmongers, auctioneers and buyers).
I also did my share of temples: from the serene spell of Meiji Jungu, an important Shinto shrine (where you are encouraged to write secret wishes on little pieces of paper and tie them onto the prayer wall, as the locals do) to the modern abbeys of commerce that span both Ginza and the fashionable Aoyama district (Chanel, Prada, Mikimoto—each storefront an architectural marvel more intergalactic than the next!).
I went to hole-in-the-wall noodle shops. I went to Michelin-stacked gems. I went to a surrealistic only-in-Japan robot restaurant.
But as much of a mind-blow as it all was—a city that is sui generis in terms of its axis between old-fashioned manners and high-tech everything with vestiges of an ancient culture lurking out from among the skyscrapers—I couldn’t shake the feeling of dislocation I felt when there. Even as something of a fortified world traveller, the place felt more “foreign” to me than any major city I had visited. More than Mumbai. More than Hong Kong. More than Istanbul or Beirut.
And as much as that is the very reason to make a Tokyo excursion—a balm to a hyper-globalized world and a time when all our surface esthetics come blurred by a sameness only a Google click away—it can also be startling in its otherness.
Unlike the other cities I mentioned and much of the world, really, where centuries of colonization plus open streams of immigration have created melting pots of culture, not to mention mishmashes of history that we almost take for granted, Japan is still fascinatingly homogenous. Sometimes claustrophobically so. (The stats bear this out: with a population of 127 million, the country is composed of a 98.5 per cent ethnically Japanese people.)
The only thing possibly more monochrome and specifically peculiar? That would be the Imperial House of Japan itself—an institution that is the longest-running hereditary monarchy in the world and, in this way, endures as a metaphor of the country’s claustrophobia itself. Its members famously cloistered—certainly more cloistered than we are used to seeing with the members of the British Royal Family—its durability happened to be all the talk when I was on my visit. Topic A. Subject Uno.
Will he—or won’t he? The question of the hour re: the long-reigning Emperor Akihito and the persistent murmurs about an abdication. “He had a heart bypass,” a woman quietly interjected when the subject came to pass at a communal table I was sharing one night at the top of the dreamy New York Bar on the 52nd floor of the Tokyo Park Hyatt (made famous for Scarlet Johansson’s own dislocation in the Sofia Coppola classic, Lost in Translation). “He is in his 80s and has had prostate cancer,” someone else—a long-time expat—mused during a visit to the Mori Art Museum.
Indeed, just a few months after my time in Japan, its government shushed the speculation and actually pulled the lever: legislation was passed to accommodate Akihito’s wishes because the current imperial household law has no express provision for abdications, and a date was set for the Chrysanthemum Throne—as it is known—to pass to Akihito’s eldest son, 57-year-old Prince Naruhito. April 2019: when, for the first time in two centuries, an emperor from the Land of the Rising Sun will officially step down.
Cue all the proselytizing that followed about how the arc of these royals aptly mirrors the plateauing of the population as a whole—a country that is not only homogeneous but also greying, what with Japan boasting the oldest population in the world.
The demographic singularness of Japan—28 per cent of its residents are over the age of 65—was even reinforced by a well-publicized move by its government to ease people out of their cars. With one in seven people over the age of 75 still driving—double the figures in Canada and the U.S.—the New York Times recently reported that these drivers “caused twice as many fatal accidents per 100,000 drivers as those under that age.”