The Emperor's Vision

By William Wetherall

Kyoto Journal
No. 10, Spring 1989, pages 10-11

Hironomiya Naruhito, Japan's emperor without portfolio, was now The Thinker incarnate as he squirmed on his favorite rock by a pond in the garden of the palace. His eyes were on a mallard that was billing a bug from the muck at the edge of the water a foot from Naruhito's white sneakers. He was musing, though, about the moss on the rock, and what it was doing to the seat of the faded jeans that Soko, his empress, had given him on his 60th birthday.

"Ne, ne, Hirochan!" Soko had said to him that lazy winter morning, six months ago, a Sunday, the 23rd day of the 2nd month of the 7th year of Yuwa, his era. She had startled him from the slumber he had slipped into when they had finished celebrating sunrise in their canopied wedding gift from Chas and Di. Soko had reached under her side of the antique four-poster, brought up a purple vinyl bag with a yellow draw string, and presented it to him as though it had contained the imperial regalia. Instead of the sacred sword, mirror, and jewel, however, the bag had held a new pair of Levi 501s with the button-up fly that Naruhito preferred to a zipper, which had ways of snagging what it was supposed to conceal.

The receipt, which Soko had left in the bag, had read 2020-02-22. The United Nations had dubbed it the Year of Good Vision, and already it was proving a greater test of imperial foresight than had been faced by any of Naruhito's predecessors, except Hirohito, who had made two noble decisions: the first, to call an end to the war which he had lent his name to; the second, to bear those unbearable needles and tubes, so long and with such dignity.

Naruhito's thoughts returned to his pants. The summer morning dew on the moss had started seeping through his briefs. It felt much better than the sweat that had glued his Oxford University T-shirt to his armpits. But he envisioned the size of the inevitable stain, and the ridicule it would bring when he returned to the Fukiage Palace.

"Look what you've done to your pants!" Soko would laugh, right in front of the palace staff.

At length he decided that he didn't care. Life would have been even more boring without its many headaches. Besides, only the T-shirt was really his, a gesture to nostalgia he had bought five years ago at the 30th reunion of his class at Merton College. The rock and its dampness belonged to the people whose unity he had been born 60 years ago to symbolize. The briefs and sneakers had come with the budgeted aid he got from the state.

The rock was a rather nice one, Naruhito thought. Only the moss had spent more time ensconced on it than he had. Yet it was just 1/150 millionth his, according to the latest census. Population growth had exceeded all projections of the previous century. People had started having more children to reduce the domestic labor shortage created by aging. The palace gardeners, even the menagerie of aliens that the Imperial Household Agency had hired under the Ministry of Labor's International Unemployment Relief Program to weed the palace grounds, were allowed to cool their buns on the rock if it was not occupied.

As for the jeans, Naruhito could be sure that they were his only when he had them on. Any other time and they were apt to be seen strutting out Hanzomon gate on the haunches of Princess Sane, his first daughter, second heir, and third headache. Sane liked to show her Kojimachi friends the big red N that her mother had sewn on one of the legs. But Naruhito was left to take the blame for the things that Sane left in the pockets when the imperial laundry was weekly shuttled to San Francisco for cleaning.

More than the jeans, however, Naruhito treasured his privacy. And this humid morning, like many others, he had stolen away from the vigilance of the staff and walked to the Great Pond in the Fukiage Garden. Soon after he had sat on the rock and dropped his chin on his fist, his first headache had disappeared, thanks more to the solitude than to the aspirin he had taken with his breakfast coke.

The isolation had not, however, relieved his other headaches, both of which were speeding the graying of his hair, already as white as Akihito's had been when he had abdicated to Naruhito. Akihito, who had pushed for the right to abdicate, which Hirohito had not had, had quit his post in 2013, on his 80th birthday, and retired with Michiko to the older palace in Kyoto which they had reclaimed from the tourists.

Naruhito himself had proposed the reign name Yuwa, which meant integration, and symbolized Japan's now officially multiracial face and the country's five million alien and citizen ethnic minorities. Hundreds of thousands of Japanese of Korean, Ainu, and other non-Yamato ancestries had taken back the ethnic family names that their forebears had discarded. There were still two Koreas, but the border between them was open, and Japan and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea had established formal relations.

Okinawa and Hokkaido had led the drive for each prefecture to use its own history textbooks. So Japanese history was now being taught from 48 local perspectives. The new prefecture, called Chishima, was a gift to Japan from the Soviet Union, to mark the turn of the century when the phaseout of military bases in Asia and the Pacific had begun.

Chishima prefecture consisted of the three and several-odd islands of the southern Kuriles which the Soviet Union had agreed to return to Japan on condition that Japan would recognize the ethnic autonomy of the archipelago's Soviet citizens, including Koreans, and continue to honor the fishing treaties which the Soviet Union had concluded with the Ainu. It was the second time for Japan to have a 48th prefecture - the first being when Karafuto, now Soviet Sakhalin, had been a prefecture for a brief period toward the end of World War II.

The 21st century had also been greeted with the passing of a number of special national referenda. One had granted suffrage to permanently residing foreigners and given them the right to run for any non-national post. In another, the Hinomaru had been confirmed as the national flag, but Furusato had become the national anthem.

Both the Imperial House Law and the Imperial Household Economy Act had been revised to give even the main branch of the Imperial Family more freedom and responsibility in managing its own affairs. So the emperor could now vote and hold public office like every other Japanese citizen. The Reign name Law had been repealed, and so the use of reign years had become a strictly private matter. Reign years could now officially appear only on the imperial genealogy maintained by the Imperial Household Agency.

Naruhito himself had welcomed the revisions, however much they had promised to change his life. All imperial house families had been required to adopt a family name and register their members in accordance with the Family Registration Law. Imperial princesses now had succession rights. Even heirs apparent were free to marry without the approval of the Imperial House Council. Imperial princesses could remain members of the Imperial Family after marriage. An emperor or empress could abdicate the throne whenever he or she wished. The faces of emperors and empresses could now appear on stamps, and Japan had printed a commemorative set for the five imperial couples from Meiji to Yuwa. The tombs protected by the Archives and Mausolea Department of the Imperial Household Agency could now be excavated if they were over 1,000 years old. The few which have been explored had been robbed at least once in antiquity but some had yielded artifacts which supported the theory that the ancient Yamato court had included Koreans.

Naruhito stretched, sat erect, and pondered the question of the millennium: was the Imperial Family going to get some new genes?

When he had been in the market for a princess, the marriage of an heir apparent to a foreigner had been unthinkable. Not that the new laws permitted such a marriage, but neither did they prohibit one. And if Naruhito could not talk his number one son, first heir, and second headache, Crown Prince Masa, out of his plans to wed Brooke Shields' daughter, then the gods that be were going to have to learn some English.

Naruhito's blood surged as he recalled the Brooke Shields poster which he had tacked to the wall at the head of his dormitory bed at Oxford. Out of jealousy rather than foresight, Soko had wanted him to throw it away, along with the covers he had torn off his mother's Vogue magazines, and the Calvin Klein jean ads, and the worn videos of Pretty Baby and Blue Lagoon and Endless Love, and the snapshots of him smiling up at Brooke's penetrating eyes that day he had met her in the flesh at Yale, and the scrap of paper on which she had written her address.

But he had put these idolatrous mementos in a box in a closet, and years later, his snoopy children had found them. And he had not been able to deny the fact of his youthful fantasies when, after he had cautioned Masa and Sane about their dates with foreigners, they had charged him with hypocrisy, taken him to court at the dinner table, and marched out all the evidence before Soko, who had declared him guilty and sentenced him to a year's subscription to Tokyo Journal.

Naruhito's second headache had been caused by an intercollegiate football game between UCB's Golden Bears and Todai's Powder Blue Ginko Leaves, both in the Pacific Rim League. At the dance after the game, Masa had met Brooke's daughter, who had been a Berkeley cheerleader.

His third headache came from the realization that, if he objected too strongly to Masa's plans to marry Brooke's daughter, Masa might make good his threat to give up his title. Then Sane would become Japan's first throne empress in nearly three centuries. And even then the imperial veins might have to make room for some alien blood, for Sane's marriage prospects included none other than the world's most eligible bachelor, Prince William.

The United Kingdom's Crown Prince was testing Sane's waters to the delight of The Sun and Daily Star, both now owned by a Japanese media mogul who had won the Nobel Peace Prize for turning his British readers into Japanophiles. Naruhito had holophoned King Charles III to ask about William's motives, and Chas had grinned, "Why do you think we gave you that bed?" The Prince of Wales then pulled a straight face and humbly suggested that an Anglo-Japanese court would be a most fitting way for the world's two greatest island nations to show their commitment to internationalism.

Naruhito moved his eyes along the bank of the pond. He imagined Hirohito showing him how to collect and classify the myriad creatures that lived around it. If only that grand old man was still in this world to lend his wisdom.

Akihito had merely advised Naruhito that he would have to use his own judgment. Soko, who had raised Masa and Sane to be more independent than even she had become despite her traditional upbringing, had simply shrugged her shoulders and mumbled, "Shikata ga nai ja nai?"

"Hiiroochaaan! Raanchii da yooo!"

The ducks, and Naruhito, stiffened their necks. Why did she have to call him to lunch that way? he wondered as he watched the ducks paddle away. How lucky they were to be able to flee, he thought.

He would wait until the ducks had reached the far bank before he stood and walked back to the palace. While watching the wake from the ducks fan out and vanish among the water lilies, he could feel the rage that was rippling through his body flush his skin and pass into the hot air.

By the time he had taken his place at the table opposite Soko, he might even feel like returning her smile. After all, it was Thursday. And not once in his entire seven years on the throne had he ever missed lunch on Big Mac day.


I had long been collecting any scrap of magazine gossip about the Imperial Family, especially Hironomiya's infatuation with Brooke Shields and his hapless search for a princess. Ayanomiya, his younger brother, seemed a freer sort, and had Japan been the United Kingdom, he would certainly have been more popular with the girls. As it was, he was light years ahead of Hironomiya on the marriage and fatherhood front.

Lampooning the Imperial Family was supposed to be taboo, but that turned out to be another myth about Japan, as I witnessed during the months that Hirohito was clearly dying. Some caricaturists and humorists were openingly treating him like the human being he had professed to be in the wake of Japan's defeat in the Pacific War -- indeed which he had been all along, notwithstanding his treatment during the imperial years as a living god. Even now, some people regard his constitutional status as the symbol of Japan as bordering on the divine.

For another story about the Imperial Family, see The Hole () (Boundaries 14, Mainichi Daily News, 20 June 1992).