Princess Kiko greeting Gannenmono descendants at the Bishop Museum in June 2018. (Hawaii Hochi photo)
Princess Kiko greeting Gannenmono descendants at the Bishop Museum in June 2018. (Hawaii Hochi photo)

Karleen Chinen

The seed for a story on Emperor Akihito’s abdication from the Chrysanthemum Throne was planted in my head a few years ago by contributing writer Kevin Kawamoto following the emperor’s address to the people of Japan regarding the status of his health. As the prospect of his abdication became more real, Kevin and I began talking more seriously about a story on Emperor Akihito and his ties to Hawai‘i. Kevin began spending much of his free time in the library, combing through microfilm, newspapers, books, websites and more to pull together this fascinating history of Japan’s imperial family.

To be honest, I’m surprised by my interest in this subject because I was never much into “the royals.” The whole emperor and empress thing was much too patrilineal and so static. Patrilineal it is, but, hopefully, that will change in the not too distant future and Japan will have a woman emperor.

But static? Static the imperial family definitely is not. Within two generations, from Hirohito to Akihito, the imperial family has changed. You’ll learn about some of those changes as you read Kevin’s well-researched and well-written stories in this issue.

Every bit of information he found and shared with me told me that we needed to share it with you, and all in one place — thus this issue of the Herald.

Last year’s visit by Prince Akishino (Emperor Akihito’s younger son) and his wife, Princess Kiko, for the Gannenmono 150th anniversary was an eye-opener. The cover photo for our June 15, 2018, edition shows Princess Kiko happily shaking hands with Gannenmono descendants of all ethnicities at the Bishop Museum. Everyone is happy and smiling — everyone, that is, except their black-suited Imperial Household handlers, whose job is to keep the prince and princess safe from crowds and on schedule to the minute. If they were children, Akishino and Kiko would have gotten a time out.

Following the example of Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko of reaching out and connecting with regular people through touch and a warm smile speaks volumes about how the imperial family has evolved over time. Keep in mind that Emperor Akihito will be the first emperor in two centuries, 200 years, to voluntarily retire from his role as the symbol of the nation. When I visited Japan for the first time in the fall of 1986, the major television networks’ remote trucks were parked outside the Imperial Palace grounds, ready to go live in a minute’s notice if and when Emperor Hirohito succumbed. He did not die until more than two years later, in January of 1989, at which time Akihito succeeded him as emperor. Maybe Emperor Akihito did not want history to repeat itself. Maybe, for once in their 60-year marriage, he wanted his partner in life, Michiko, and himself to spend their lives like regular husband and wife. Maybe he’ll scramble eggs for her for breakfast and serve her tea.

Kevin’s interest in Japan’s imperial family began with his selection as a Crown Prince Akihito Scholar. It allowed him to study at the Center for Japanese Studies at Nanzan University in Nagoya from 1990 to 1991. In 1991, he participated in a private audience with Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko at Akasaka Palace in Tökyö. Kevin met the imperial couple again at receptions in Honolulu in 1994 and 2009. He was also honored to meet then-Princess Sayako, the couple’s only daughter, during her 1999 visit to Honolulu.

Kevin was also an East-West Center grantee in Honolulu from 1989 to 1992. He earned his master’s degree in communication from the University of Hawai‘i at Mänoa and a second master’s in social work, as well as his Ph.D. in communications from the University of Washington in Seattle. He taught at both the University of Washington and the University of Hawai‘i at Mänoa, as well as working in the field of media studies at an institute at Columbia University in New York City.

Kevin’s interest in Japanese culture and society stems from his decades of research on Hawai‘i’s Japanese community dating back to the late 1980s. His paternal great-grandparents immigrated to Hawai‘i from Hiroshima Prefecture — his great-grandfather in 1896, and his great-grandmother in 1901 as a picture bride a few months after turning 17. He currently researches and writes about gerontology.

In addition to Kevin’s stories, Culture4Kids! columnists Carolyn Morinishi and Marian Kubota developed an educational craft about Reiwa, the coming new era of Japan, which children can try.

The opportunity to do an issue like this one doesn’t come around very often, so we are very, very grateful to the organizations and businesses that supported it — The Crown Prince Akihito Scholarship Foundation, Central Pacific Bank, Japan-America Society of Hawaii, Kuakini Health System and Shingon Shu Hawaii.

And, finally, to Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko, we say, “Doomo arigatou gozaimasu. Otsukaresama deshita” . . . thank you all your efforts and for representing Japan so honorably and for your efforts to bridge Japan, Hawai‘i and the United States.


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