We don’t talk about the Emperor….

I am infatuated with the Imperial Family of Japan.

Just like the old British ladies one hears about who must buy every Royal Family commemorative plate and all the knick-knacks celebrating the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, I continually confuse my friends and loved ones with my bizarre obsession with the Emperor of Japan.

I read books about the history of the Japanese Imperial Family, study members’ biographies, and subscribe to news feeds that keep me up to date on their schedules and goings on. I’ve gone to see the reigning emperor in person twice, once waiting more than three hours shoulder-to-shoulder with thousands of fellow admirers.

In short, I’m an insufferable loser.

But perhaps even more than these annoying fascinations bother my American friends, my studies on the Imperial system make my Japanese friends incredibly uncomfortable. I’ve come to simply accept that I can’t talk about the Emperor, Imperial history, or the future the Imperial line around Japanese acquaintances except under the rarest of circumstances.

And this is one of the most fascinating anthropological mysteries I’ve stumbled across in Japan: “the Chrysanthemum Curtain.”

Japanese people don’t talk about the Emperor. At least, not until they’re liquored up, buttered up, or in some other way convinced that they can say whatever they want without disrupting the peace.

It has nothing to do with Draconian laws against criticizing the emperor — communists and socialists within Japan have been doing that since communism and socialism have existed. Some have denounced the entire imperial system through newsletters and nonfiction books. Others have gone so far as to throw eggs at the prince’s carriage.

The silence on the emperor is also completely divorce of any larger-than-life reverence or awe that makes the citizens of Japan refrain from talking about their nominal ruler. He’s not treated as a god anymore. He’s on the news. He’s drawn as a character in comic books. He visits retirement homes and even plays with school children from time to time.

There’s no spiritual or political compulsion to submission.

Few people I’ve met even know the Emperor’s real name — they simply know him as “Tenno.” (“The Emperor”)

That might sound strange, but it’s not as odd as you think. For a comparison, think about how many Catholics do not know Pope Francis’ birth name, Jorge Bergolio, or the family name of Queen Elizabeth II, which is Windsor.

The current emperor’s name is Naruhito, by the way, but again, no one calls him that. And when he dies, his name will posthumously change to match the era he reigned in. (Emperor Reiwa)

The remarkable thing about the Japanese silence about their own emperor is just how little they even have to say. The Japanese public isn’t zipping their lips and holding back a stream of vulgarities and insults to save face.

The Imperial Family is surprising popular! Naruhito has an 83% approval rating among his citizens. His ascension to the throne was seen live by tens of thousands of Japanese that made the special trip out to the palace to listen to a series of minutes-long addresses to the public. I attended as well, and it was the only place I’ve ever heard the phrase “Tenno bonzai!” (lit. “Long live the Emperor!”) cheered outside of a World War II film.

So, when I pour a couple of rounds of beers for a well-educated and politically-minded friend and finally pop the question, “What do you think of the emperor?”, what do I hear?

“He seems nice.”

“I’m glad he’s around, even if he’s just a symbol.”

“I don’t really know anything about the emperor, haha!”

These are the forbidden words held back by the Japanese. The words that they refuse to share for fear of undermining the peace and ostracizing themselves for reason of taboo conversation. The one thing that they cannot say — “He seems nice.”

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