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The Emperor's Code: Breach Of Protocol Spurs Debate In Japan

Actor turned lawmaker Taro Yamamoto (second left) hands a letter to Japan's Emperor Akihito, as Empress Michiko and chief steward Yutaka Kawashima (top center) look on during the autumn garden party at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo on Oct. 31.
Koji Sasahara
Actor turned lawmaker Taro Yamamoto (second left) hands a letter to Japan's Emperor Akihito, as Empress Michiko and chief steward Yutaka Kawashima (top center) look on during the autumn garden party at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo on Oct. 31.

A staid and unremarkable royal garden party suddenly became the stuff of front-page scandal, when rookie lawmaker and passionate anti-nuclear activist Taro Yamamoto slipped a handwritten letter to Emperor Akihito. The mystified monarch hurriedly passed the epistle to an aide, unread — but the damage was done.

There is no audible reaction on video of the Oct. 31 incident, but the collective public gasp over an unusual breach of conduct was heard nationwide.

The lawmaker's sin, officially, is violating Japan's ban on using the emperor for political gain. But the incident shows lingering sensitivity over the emperor nearly 70 years after the end of World War II. That's when Emperor Akihito's father, Hirohito, renounced his divine status.

Japan's emperor has been a titular head since then, as the U.S. imposed a constitution that proscribed royal participation in the business of ruling. His life is confined to a whirlwind of goodwill trips, photo ops with foreign dignitaries, and attendance at arts events.

Since the aging and frail monarch is constitutionally powerless, the letter incident was widely seen as a pointless and shameless spotlight grab.

Yamamoto argued he was only trying to draw imperial attention to the plight of Fukushima, particularly children's exposure to radiation, and workers involved in cleaning up the aftermath of the March 2011 nuclear plant accident.

The 38-year-old independent politician explained on his website that "very little progress has been made on the life-threatening situation [in Fukushima]. As time passed, I felt that only the emperor could understand the anguish and anxiety in my heart. My overwhelming love and respect for the emperor prompted me to write him."

An actor whose wide-ranging oeuvre runs from gore to G-rated, Yamamoto has managed to stay in the limelight in his latest role, representing the city of Tokyo in Japan's Upper House. In an interview with Asahi Shimbun just after his election last summer, he said the nuclear accident had so permeated his subconscious that he shouted "Meltdown!" in his sleep.

Instant polls on the Japanese Yahoo site and elsewhere showed scant sympathy for the pol gone rogue. Spurning calls for his removal from office, the Upper House instead decided to banish him from any future events where the emperor, who presides over the world's longest continuous royal line, would be present.

Residual Lese-Majeste

The prohibition against pulling royals into politics didn't stop conservative Prime Minister Shinzo Abe from deploying a princess to bolster Japan's bid for the Olympics, nor from placing the emperor and empress at Japan's first "return of sovereignty" ceremony this year, seen as an exercise in nationalism. The center-left Democrats have also had their turn at dragging the royal family into politics.

There seems to be a residue of prewar lese-majeste animating the most apoplectic of the Yamamoto bashers.

"In the old days, Yamamoto would have had to commit ritual disembowelment," one person fumed. "No, he wouldn't have been given the honor!" said another. "He would simply have been crucified!"

"Simply crucified" is perhaps the best way to describe the spleen still being vented at Yamamoto. Perhaps just as much a source of umbrage as anything else was his flouting of etiquette. More than one commentator has fulminated that the offending letter was, for goodness sakes, not even placed in a proper envelope!

Even Fukushima's benighted residents, while naturally more sympathetic toward someone who speaks so passionately on their behalf, have called him out for bad behavior. In a conservative country steeped in traditions, customs and rules governing the most minute aspects of public behavior, stepping out of line, even in the purported service of a noble cause, can only have consequences.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Lucy Craft
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