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waving at the emperor

10 January 1999

Twice a year, the Emperor of Japan makes appearances before his loving subjects--on his birthday and at the new year. Tod & I took this new year opportunity to go see the Emperor waving. We rode the subway to the station nearest the Imperial Palace and headed along the outer moat to the long, tidy lines of people moving slowly toward the inner gardens and the Emperor.

As we approached the first portal, members of a Japanese Boy Scout troop, in full uniform and bedecked with jaunty green berets, handed us paper flags on sticks. A few steps farther along, the palace police very cursorily frisked each and every person visiting--they didn't even notice the mandarin orange in Tod's jacket pocket--and sent us on our way into the Inner Gardens.

The Inner Gardens are quite austere. Sculpted trees border a gravel lane wide enough for several cars to pass. There are a few traditional style buildings set back on well clipped lawns. A bridge flanked with Victorian lampposts leads through the final portal into the courtyard where we waited for the Emperor to appear.

As we waited, I tried to estimate the number of people also waiting in front of the long, low building. I guessed about five thousand at the time, but looking back, I would think maybe closer to seven thousand people were crammed into the space we shared. Tod & I were well behaved, but many of the visitors, especially the older women, wormed their way ever closer to the building, jockeying for position and a good view.

At 1:30, exactly on schedule, the emperor and his family filed into the second story gallery in front of us. The wall is made of glass, bulletproof, I presume. The crowd waved their paper flags and cheered while the Emperor waved. When he began to speak, everyone quieted. Sadly, my Japanese isn't good enough yet to know exactly what he said, but it lasted for only a few moments and then the crowd was cheering and waving again as the Emperor and his family waved and retreated back into the palace.

The crowded filed out, past the buildings and clipped lawns of the Inner Gardens to the clipped lawns and shrubbery of the Outer Gardens. Throngs stopped at the hastily errected sales booths to purchase souveneir phone cards and paper lanterns.

Tod & I spent the rest of our afternoon exploring a neighborhood that we hadn't stopped in before, Okachimachi. It has a bustling shopping street and post-new year sales were in full swing. A favorite trick of shops at the new year is to offer "lucky bags" of closeout merchandise. They pile them outside the shop on tables, labelled with sizes, when that's appropriate, but otherwise giving no clue as to what's inside. I got a grocery bag full of candy for 1000 yen (about $9) and for 2000 yen another bag with a CD rack, a sweater (too small, but very pretty), a pink lucite clipboard, a tote bag and three little candles. If we'd been brave, we could have gone for the 5000 yen bag of stuff from the sweater store, or even the sporting good shop. I was hoping to see a discounted bag of cats and kittens outside the pet shop, but no such luck.

Copyright 2003. Kristen McQuillin,