Dispatch From Tokyo

Is the sun set­ting on one of the world’s old­est monar­chies? As an aging em­peror pre­pares to step down, Shi­nan Go­vani asks what it means to Ja­pan and its so­ci­ety of elders over which he reigns

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Is the sun set­ting on Ja­pan’s monar­chy?

IT ENTHRALLS 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 mustbe-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.”

Among driv­ers 80 years old or more? The rate was three times as high, with the news me­dia reg­u­larly fea­tur­ing “grisly re­ports of deaths caused by older driv­ers, some of whom are later dis­cov­ered to have Alzheimer’s dis­ease.” Since 2009, the Times clar­i­fied, “all driv­ers 75 and older must sub­mit to a test of their cog­ni­tive func­tion­ing when they re­new their li­cences,” while un­der a new traf­fic law put into ef­fect in 2017, those who score poorly are sent to a doc­tor for ex­am­i­na­tion.

The num­ber of driv­ers over 65

Em­peror Ak­i­hito and Em­press Michiko in the Ja­panese Gar­den in Lon­don’s Royal Botanic Gar­dens, 1998; (inset) Queen El­iz­a­beth II and Crown Prince Ak­i­hito in the royal box at Ep­som Downs Race­course in Eng­land, 1953

The royal wave (from left to right): Crown Prince Naruhito, Em­peror Ak­i­hito, Em­press Michiko, Prince Ak­ishino and Princess Kiko on the bal­cony of the Im­pe­rial Palace in Tokyo, 2016

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