Hirohito’s last birthday

Tenno 1988 - Emperor Wave enhancedI’m almost done, I suppose, with the first phase of my image digitization and pedagogy project, namely scanning a significant chunk of my Japan slides and prints. I’ve completely gone through the slides I had pulled for classroom use when I started teaching, supplemented with some from my complete collection; I still have dozens of boxes of slides to go through from my first year in Japan (1984-85), and I’m sure there are some surprises.1 I’ve gone through most of my prints as well — pictures from my junior year at Keio International Center (1987-88) and my graduate research year in Yamaguchi (1994-1995) — and extracted most of the interesting stuff, and I’m mostly done scanning them. I’m taking a bit of a break from my collection once that’s done, and focusing on scanning the book images which I’ve been using in class — I had a huge collection of slides made by the photography department in my first year or two of teaching — but I probably can’t upload those en masse, for copyright reasons.2

Most of my pictures, to be honest, are pretty typical tourist pictures — with the caveat that we very, very rarely posed for “we are here” shots — but my father taught me that it’s a lot cheaper to take lots of pictures than to go back, so I did get quite a few decent architectural shots, and some good cultural ones. Fairly static stuff, but much of it will be useful in my Japanese history courses; I’ve set a fairly broad Creative Commons license on the pictures, so that they can be used by other teachers.3 There are a few times, though, when I captured something which legitimately might be considered a unique historical moment.

During Golden Week of my year at Keio, a few friends and I decided to go to the Emperor’s Birthday Audience, when crowds can enter the Imperial Palace grounds and get to see an appearance of the monarch, plus family:

Tenno 1988 - Right Wing Trucks - Birthday The first thing we saw, actually, was the speaker trucks and transports of the unreconstructed right-wing. (More here and here) They dominated the streets for blocks around the palace, and I suppose a significant portion of the crowd must have come with them. I particularly like this one, for the celebratory birthday message.
Tenno 1988 - Crowd Photographers The crowd was quite dense, which was enhanced by the fact that it was raining when we arrived: the umbrellas were so close together that you were likely to get dripped on from your neighbor’s umbrella, even if you were under your own. I was kind of concerned, actually, about visibility. However, in one of the most genuinely odd moments in my life, the rain stopped just before the Emperor came out.
Tenno 1988 - Full Dress Police The police were, of course, in full dress, and there were a bunch of them. The crowd was very well-behaved, though, and there really wasn’t much for them to do but stand there looking dramatic.
Tenno 1988 - Emperor Princes Princesses When the Showa Emperor appeared, with his family, there was a general roar of “Tenno Heika Banzai” from the crowd, cheering and that stiff-armed banzai bow/wave. I tried applauding, just as a sign of respect, but there wasn’t anyone else doing it, so I stopped and just listened. And took pictures.
Tenno 1988 - Emperor enhanced After waving to the crowd (see above), he spoke a few words. I don’t remember anything about the message, except that it was short and formal. This was his last birthday audience, one of his last public appearances: within eight months, he’d be dead from stomach cancer. I don’t remember thinking, at the time, that he seemed ill, just old.
Tenno 1988 - Princes As an added bonus, though I didn’t really think much of it at the time, I got a good look at the line of succession. (At least, I think I did. If I’ve misidentified anyone, or you have something to add, feel free to add comments on the photos.)

  1. For example, when I looked through my Atsuta Matsuri pictures, I discovered that I’d taken a bunch of pictures of the Aichi Prefecture Police Band and Bugle Corps. I’m not surprised that the police have a band — many military and paramilitary organizations need marching music — but the cheerleader-like Bugle Corps women seem, well, cheerleader-like.  

  2. Unless someone wants to argue that the enhancements I’m doing in Photoshop — contrast, lightness, etc — transform the image sufficiently that it’s a new creation to which I am the rightful copyright holder….. No? I didn’t think so. That said, once I’ve amassed a solid collection, I’d be happy to share them via CD-ROM with anyone who’s got a legitimate teaching need. That’s legal.  

  3. I’ve already shared my Atsuta Shrine pictures, and some cultural illustrations. And my Early Japan class is about to hit Kamakura.  


  1. Very interesting pictures thank you. It is really something amazing to catch a moment in history or a historical person like this. They will be forever frozen in time. It’s too bad when the imperial family presents themselves at this event that they stand behind glass however.

  2. Thanks.

    I’m sure it’s a security measure — there are a few folks out there who think the Imperial institution is a political and moral abomination — due to the size of the crowd and lack of screening.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.