Forever a Princess – for me, the Japanese Imperial Family will remain Empress Michiko

It’s April 30 in Tokyo as I write this, and just a few hours from now, Emperor Akihito at age 85 will abdicate and bring to an end the Heisei era, with the new Reiwa era beginning on May 1st as his son Naruhito ascends the throne. I left Japan in 1989, just months after Emperor Hirohito had died, ending the tumultuous Showa era.

Emperor Akihito’s Enthronement Ceremony in 1989. (Imperial Household Agency)

In the middle of the June rains, just as the first coins marked 平成元年 (Heisei Year One) had begun entering circulation, I bought my last cucumber rolls at the Narita Airport sushi restaurant and boarded a 747 for America. I have not returned in 30 years.

LAX, 1984

Despite spending my formative years in Japan from birth to the age of 15 (I’ve written before about the sense of displacement and alienation I felt visiting American military bases, and how I identified with Japanese sumo wrestler Chiyonofuji as my childhood hero), the names and personalities of all those men in stiff suits mean nothing to me compared to the beauty, grace, and kindness of one woman.

Crown Prince Akihito and Crown Princess Michiko after their wedding in 1959

Miss Michiko Shoda, a commoner, met her future husband on the tennis court in the resort town of Karuizawa in 1957. Thirty years later, the Crown Princess and Crown Prince Akihito continued to spend part of each summer there, traveling by motorcade from the Imperial Palace in Tokyo. They also sometimes spent time at the Hayama Imperial Villa near Kamakura, traveling southwest from Tokyo through Yokohama, right past our house.

When we heard on the news that the Imperial Family would be traveling through Yokohama, we would wait for traffic to begin backing up on our street as the police escort stopped all traffic on the roads for kilometers on either side of the motorcade. My brother, the neighbor kids, and I would all walk down to the sidewalk next to the Hodogaya Bypass and stand in a row to wave at the black cars as they whizzed past.

But the year after our first in Yokohama, the second time we watched the police escort roar by on their motorcycles, we noticed that one of the great big black cars was slowing down. As it approached where we stood by the side of the road, a heavily tinted window began to roll down. Just as the car drove past us, a single, white-gloved hand extended from the window and waved. Behind that hand, we glimpsed the Crown Princess beneath a pillbox hat.

Each year thereafter, we lined up next to the bypass whenever the Royal Family traveled between Hayama and Tokyo. Without fail, the Crown Princess made it a point to acknowledge this strange assemblage of American and Japanese children furiously waving handmade flags by the side of the road.

In the years since, Emperor Akihito has forged a path of peace for himself, visiting former enemies and expressing profound regret and sadness for the horrors of war inflicted in the name of his father upon countless millions around the Pacific rim — a far cry from modern Japanese politicians like Prime Minister Abe, hellbent on erasing the lessons learned from the past and re-militarizing the Japanese nation-state. Unlike far too many of my fellow Americans who seem to long for kingship, I’ve never been particularly interested in royal-watching — I never shared my mother’s obsession with Princess Diana, for example. I deeply object to the cost of maintaining an aristocracy at the expense of everyday people, no matter how bound to national identity or tradition royalty may be.

And yet, there’s something to be said for the example set by symbolic, apolitical heads of state like Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko. Despite my objections to the very idea of royalty, I have profound respect for both Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko as fellow human beings. One can hope that Crown Prince Naruhito will follow a similar, modernizing path as he ascends the Chrysanthemum Throne on May 1st.

Empress Michiko with Emperor Akihito and President Barack Obama in Tokyo in 2014, with PM Abe in the background

As I write this, I’m one month away from my first trip home to Japan in 30 years — the exact span of the Heisei era. Japan will always remain my true homeland, no matter what I look like on the outside and no matter how long I spend away from the country of my birth and childhood. I’m incredibly excited, but also somewhat fearful of the change I’ll find. As I sit at sushi and ramen counters here in the US and chat with sushi chefs and noodle cooks, I hear about how so much Tokyo in particular has changed since they’ve come to the US themselves, often in just a few years compared to my three decades. What will Harajuku and Meiji Shrine look like nearly 45 years after my first visit?

Meiji Shrine, Tokyo, 1975

Perhaps there is indeed something beautiful in the existence of royalty in modern democracies like Japan, Sweden, and Great Britain where their powers have been constitutionally circumscribed by elected representatives of their erstwhile subjects: Royal households provide cultural continuity that no term-limited politician can, while retaining enough respect and moral authority to influence positive change in their countries and abroad.

I wish their Imperial Majesties a long and happy retirement. And if I can’t wish for the abolition of the Imperial institution, I can certainly wish for a peaceful and prosperous Reiwa era led by good, kind people like their predecessors.

The Emperor and Empress with children and grandchildren in 2013

Remembering Chiyonofuji, my childhood hero (1955-2016)

Contrary to the perception of many westerners, sumo is a game of speed and strategy, in which wrestlers assess their opponent’s weaknesses — psychological as much as physical — and attempt to outmaneuver quickly in order to get the upper hand. All sumo wrestlers are incredibly strong, but many also bulk up in order to give themselves an advantage in the ring. Not so with Chiyonofuji (千代の富士), who began his career in the early 1970s and retired in 1991 — spanning all the years I spent in Japan as a child. Some of the first foreign wrestlers came to prominence during that same time, Takamiyama (from Hawaii) and Konishiki (a Hawaiian born Samoan), but I always identified more with the little guy in the black mawashi.

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The month before my family left for the States, I watched my last sumo tournament in Japan, during which Konishiki handily defeated Chiyonofuji by shoving him out of the ring with an “oshidashi.”

And it was hard not to root for the American-born Konishiki when he beat the already legendary Yokozuna during their first match in 1984.

But it was all the smart moves he had made during the previous 15 years that left such an impression on me, often employing his much-feared “uwatenage” (literally “upper hand throw”).

As an American kid attending a local Japanese school, I was different from my Japanese classmates in both obvious and less-obvious ways. Children all over the world can be incredibly cruel to anybody who’s different, and I was the frequent victim of schoolyard bullies. Chiyonofuji proved that being bigger and stronger did not always result in victory — outthinking your adversary is far more important.

Sherding for Jomon pottery in Yokohama

In 1983, my family moved from the medieval castle town of Himeji in western Japan to the outskirts of Yokohama. We had also lived in Yokohama for two years after I was born in Tokyo, and my minister father was being transferred back to work at his church’s headquarters in Asahi-ku. We lived in a mouldering compound of American ranch houses built for western missionaries. Constructed 40 years earlier in an era when American missionaries had Japanese maids, the houses even had a small apartment on the other side of the kitchen, behind the garage — a single tiny room with tatami mats and a bathroom with a deep Japanese furo that I sometimes preferred to the American bathtubs elsewhere in the house.

Through the power of satellite photography, I can see my old home, the easternmost house in the row of four toward the center of this screen capture (sent to me by a friend in 2011).

My childhood home, from space

The first thing I learned in Yokohama was to drop my Kansai accent and start talking like the Kanto children around me.

One of the next things I learned was that we lived atop a giant Jōmon midden. A midden is the kitchen scrap-heap of an archaeological site. Like the famous Tells of Middle Eastern archaeology, kitchen middens can grow to enormous proportions over the millennia as humans live near or on top of their growing garbage heap. Shell middens specifically include shellfish remains, but in Japan the term 貝塚 (kaizuka) is used as a general term for various types of archaeological middens, regardless of any evidence of actual shellfish processing at the site.

The Jōmon period (縄文時代) began about 16,000 years ago and lasted until the beginning of the Yayoi period (弥生時代) in about 300 BCE, with the introduction of rice-based agriculture. The Jōmon people made some of the earliest pottery in the world, but despite their sedentary lifestyle in villages and their intensive use of earthenware (土器), they were a predominantly pre-agricultural society of hunter-gatherers. Thus, the Jōmon period is considered transitional between the Paleolithic in Japan (旧石器時代) and the Iron Age Yayoi with their bronze bells, iron swords, and rice paddies.

How did the people of Japan leap from the Paleolithic straight to the Iron Age? The general consensus among archaeologists, geneticists, linguists, physical anthropologists, and historians is that the Jōmon people represent Japan’s aboriginal inhabitants, while the Yayoi people were an immigrant population of East Asians from the mainland, who moved into Japan (probably from Korea, though that is a controversial hypothesis for a variety of reasons) and then pushed out or intermingled with the native population.

Hokkaido, 1976Starting around 2,300 years ago, the Yayoi culture and the later Yamato culture steadily replaced the Jōmon culture, until the Ainu people alive in Hokkaido today remain the last descendants of Japan’s original Jōmon. With the colonization of Hokkaido following the Meiji Restoration in 1868, the invasion of the Yamato people across the islands of the Japanese archipelago was finally complete after more than two thousand years.

As I learned myself while attending Japanese elementary school in Yokohama, every Japanese child learns key archaeological details about the Jōmon period. Crafted without a wheel using coiled clay and fired in an open bonfire at fairly low temperatures, Jōmon potters often applied designs to their earthenware by pressing or rolling twine onto the wet clay. This is where the archaeological period gets its name: “Jōmon” means “rope-marked”.

Archaeological sites are so common in the densely populated country that some go unexcavated. Near my home in Yokohama, modern machines with their ever-deeper plowing turned up more and more Jōmon potsherds in each furrow. Nearly every weekend for three years, I scoured the fields for these potsherds, hauling home plastic shopping bags full of broken pieces pressed with the classic, rope-marked pattern of pottery from the Early Jōmon phase (between 6,000 and 4,500 years ago).

A few years after we moved away from Yokohama, on a day when I must have felt particularly bored or lonely, I went through one of my boxes of sherds and managed to assemble a larger section from 6 different pieces. The hours I spent trying to fit potsherds together indicate just how seriously I took my future as an archaeologist.

Jomon potsherds (1)

Every so often in Yokohama, I would find a more substantial potsherd, usually from a thicker vessel with the kinds of beautifully embossed patterns more typical of the Middle and Late Jōmon phases. Given their beauty, these were rare and exciting finds, even if the farmers didn’t seem to think so — they were usually tossed to the edge of the field like troublesome stones.

Jomon potsherd (7)

The vast carrot fields atop the hill to the north of our little American neighborhood yielded the most pottery — from small fragments to large sherds with ornate, swirling patterns.

Jomon potsherd (3)

In the years since a former neighbor emailed me a screenshot of our old houses on Google Maps, a new imaging pass has revealed that our four American-style oddities have been torn down, replaced by a modern neighborhood of over thirty proper Japanese houses. Similarly, the carrot fields to the north of the missionary compound have been replaced by the Wakabadai apartment complex — a convenient, one-hour train ride straight into downtown Tokyo.

Yokohama, 1975I can take a virtual walk along the Tomei Expressway to my old elementary school, and I can even see the shadow of the Japanese lantern where I had my picture taken when I was a baby. As I peruse photos taken from space of the Japanese streets I knew so well, while connected from my living room in Seattle to a global network of computers, it becomes clear how much has changed in just 30 years. Our satellites also look outward, finding unseen planets and revealing a universe of limitless wonder.

Yet, as I hold a 5,000-year-old Jōmon potsherd in my hand, I wonder what we’ve lost beneath all those apartment buildings, the bank, the ramen shop, and the train station with its express service to Shinjuku. What do we destroy when we pave over ten thousand years of history for another hamburger joint?

And how will future archaeologists assess these first layers as they scrape away our present and reveal the past we share with them?

Of mammoths past and mammoths future

In the entrance hall of the Historical Museum of Hokkaido stand two enormous skeletons — a mammoth and a Naumann’s elephant, another type of woolly, Pleistocene proboscidean native to Japan. By the time I visited the museum at age three or four, I had seen living elephants at the Ueno Zoo in Tokyo and the Maruyama Zoo in Sapporo. The enormous curved tusks arched over my head, and I knew instantly that I was in the presence of something altogether different and wonderful.

Historical Museum of Hokkaido ticket

An artifact: My mother saved the entrance ticket to the museum

We walked past cases of Jomon pottery and through the dark halls of ethnographic dioramas depicting Ainu lifeways. The museum opened just a few years earlier, in 1971, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Western-style colonization of Hokkaido by ethnic Japanese people following the Meiji Restoration. Hokkaido today is full of beautiful Victorian buildings that would be at home in any of the nicer neighborhoods of San Francisco, Chicago, or Seattle. As is typical the world over, the process of colonization did not go well for the aboriginal peoples. But I’ll save a discussion of the complexities of modern Japan as a multiethnic society for another day…

I got scared of the strange, dimly lit mannequins with their beards and furs, so my mother took me outside to walk around on the museum grounds, where we encountered a rock wall of hand stencils like the ones I’d see when I grew older, a motif that ties together Paleolithic cultures the world over.

Despite my fear, from that moment on, I became fascinated with humanity’s shared past. I needed to understand those other people who lived in a time when mammoths and aurochs roamed the open steppe. By the time I was 5 had learned that people who studied deep human history were called archaeologists, and the people who dug up mammoths were called paleontologists. As awed as I was by that mammoth, it was the people who intrigued me. Following the invariable fireman phase and a brief flirtation with wanting to be a ballerina (after seeing the Bolshoi Ballet perform Swan Lake), I knew I wanted to become an archaeologist.

When adults asked me, I would inform them of this fact, to which most would say, “So you want to dig up dinosaurs? That sounds like fun!”

“No,” I would reply, “That’s a paleontologist, like Louis Leakey in Africa. I want to become an archaeologist.”

By the mid-80’s, adults would then follow with “Oh, of course, like Indiana Jones!”

I’d sigh and say, “No, not like him. Indiana Jones is just a grave robber. I want to be like Heinrich Schliemann. He discovered Troy.”

Large proportions of my education having consisted of back issues of National Geographic and old sets of Encyclopædia Britannica, I was, in hindsight, rather insufferable.

There really are moments in the course of your life when it shifts to a new direction. In the years since, I’ve collected Jomon potsherds from carrot fields in Yokohama, participated in digs (the Tategahana Paleolithic site at Lake Nojiri and Tall al-`Umayri in Jordan), held Neanderthal tools in my hand, and pondered axial precession under Newgrange.

And yet, nothing will ever compare to my first sight of a mammoth skeleton that day back in Hokkaido. Some day, perhaps I’ll see one in the flesh…

That one time I swam to Myanmar (and back)

One day twenty years ago or so, somebody at my religiously affiliated high school thought it would be an excellent idea to send our choir to a school in the Mae La camp in Thailand to aid in the construction of a new building for Karen refugees, presumably as a demonstration of American largesse and Christian charity.

I could tell you about how I bathed in a river for a week, how I rode a genuine working elephant (not some tourist pachyderm), how two thirds of us got food poisoning, or how the concrete never properly set. I could tell you that we left having accomplished nothing more than two parallel ditches in a patch of red dirt that the local people had already cleared before we arrived.

I could wax political about the sheer, indecent waste of spending thousands of dollars each to send a bunch of American teenagers to do work that could have been done better, faster, and with positive economic impact for the local community. As a missionary kid myself, I could rail against the sheer arrogance and imperialism — that somehow these American children were making a difference or “helping” the local community.

I could remind everyone that the safe, secure, and “free” Yangon that Anthony Bourdain enjoys today is thanks to a successful military campaign to suppress all the ethnic minorities (such as the Karen) fighting in the countryside for self-determination.

But none of that is especially interesting, so I’ll tell you about the time I swam to Myanmar.

One afternoon after the church service, starring a special choir of children flown in all the way from America, we were walking along a riverbank back to the little village that surrounded the school. Our Karen guide — a fellow teenager from the school — pointed across the river and told us the other side was Burma. Unsupervised by adults and newly invigorated from having survived salmonella poisoning in the middle of the jungle, several American children thought it would be an excellent idea to swim the hundred meters or so across the Moei River, just so they could tell their friends and relatives back home that they had been to Burma.

“Just don’t go past the rocks on the shore — there could be mines,” the Karen girl said. Good to know.

Back home, I was the head lifeguard at our school. I didn’t need to be an adult to suggest that this was not, in fact, an excellent idea. Unswayed, several boys and girls waded into the river wearing their cargo shorts, T-shirts, and brand-new Tevas from REI.

I decided I could at least sit on a rock and make sure nobody died in the water.

Halfway across the river, the current caught one of the younger boys.

I called out, “Do you need some help?”

He nodded sheepishly as he drifted north toward the Salween River, thence south on to the Andaman Sea, the Bay of Bengal, and the Indian Ocean.

I took off my own Tevas (they were really big back in the 90’s) and I waded into the brown water. Once I was clear of the mud sucking at my feet, I dove forward and swam toward the floundering boy. I threw my arm over his shoulder and shoved my hip up under his, pulling him up and nearly out of the water — a move designed simultaneously to control and to calm. It’s also a move that puts the lifeguard mostly underwater.

“Just lean back and relax,” I said as I bobbed up and exhaled. A breath, one stroke, up again. “I’ve got you.”

Damned if I was going to play flag football or join junior varsity basketball, I had taken lifeguard certification twice for P.E. credit. This would be my first real-world rescue. But if I could subdue an ex-Marine Gulf War vet who outweighed me by a hundred pounds in our pool, I knew hauling a fifteen-year-old to safety in real life would be quite possible.

I looked up and realized we were closer to the far bank. I changed course and hauled him with my right arm as I scissor-kicked us the rest of the way to Burma. My feet touched round river stones and I pulled the boy upright.

“Let’s rest for a minute, and then I’ll haul you back. I think that’ll be easier.”

We sat there in Myanmar for about 10 minutes, tossing stones into the river.

Our return trip was uneventful. He floated on his back and I hauled him back to Thailand by his collar. (I suppose my story’s boring ending proves that it’s true. The most dramatic part of a good, made-up story isn’t in the middle.)

We never told the adults about all this — the choir director and the chaperones, the parents and teachers. We suspected nothing good would come of telling everyone else of this latest adventure.

On the desk in my office, among the trilobites and bifaces, sits an unprepossessing green stone — a souvenir hastily picked up from the banks of the Moei River, a memento of the day I swam to Myanmar and back.

Moei River on Wikipedia

A fairly well-populated section of the Moei River, nothing like the middle of the jungle where I swam across, hauling an embarrassed fifteen-year-old kid