Each year, Mansfield Fellows have the unique opportunity of an audience with members of Japan’s Imperial Family. Since the program’s inception, Fellows have met with the Imperial family as a result of the high regard in which Senator Mike Mansfield is held even years after his passing and the strong relationship he enjoyed with the Emperor. In addition to being the longest serving Senate Majority leader, Senator Mansfield was also America’s longest serving Ambassador to Japan.
Someday our daughter might wonder why she was born in Japan and want to know more about our time here. While this is not terribly exciting for others, I would be remiss if I did tell her about meeting the Crown Prince while she was getting over a small cold and Daddy was meeting with the movers.
Prior to the meeting, we were given instructions regarding the protocol for the afternoon. We were advised to dress in Cool Biz (business casual in response to the summer heat and energy conservation measures). We would have a 30 minute audience in which we were advised to avoid political conversations followed by a private tour of the gardens. If we addressed the Crown Prince or Crown Princess, we were instructed to refer to them as Denka and Hidenka respectively (Your Royal Highness). I had hoped the Crown Princess, who has recently resumed some duties, would be in attendance, but she was not. Perhaps next time, ne?
After we arrived, we were escorted into the room where the audience would be held. The large room was sparely furnished with 2 tables and 6 upholstered chairs to accommodate our group. The few furnishings highlighted the room’s beautiful wood paneling and bucolic view over the small garden just outside the floor to ceiling windows. Household staff went over the protocol a second time, showing us where we would sit, and lining us up in order for our initial greeting. Finally, there was a knock on the outer door signaling that he would enter, which was bookended with a second knock on the opposite doors when his time was finished.
Our handler introduced himself with a very deep bow and the most honorific of Japanese. In Japanese, there are multiple levels of polite speech, with special honorifics used when addressing a member of the Imperial Family. Fortunately, we were not required to learn anything beyond Denka, though we were instructed to use Japanese since a primary purpose of our program is to learn Japanese.
If I recall correctly the Crown Prince did not bow in return to us, which is normally customary. However, since the practice is that one bows more deeply to the person in the higher position of respect, it makes sense that he would not bow to us in return. Frankly, only the handler properly bowed. We did the awkward handshake/bow spectacle that is so common among foreigners in Japan in any situation and only amplified when meeting royalty. “Ack! You’re shaking my hand, but I think I should bow because I’m in Japan. Oh no, now it looks like I’m kissing your hand. Why can’t I remember the instructions!?!”
It was a pleasant meeting and I was surprised at the amount of time he spent with us. We sat down for thirty minutes over iced green tea and wagashi (traditional Japanese sweets) while we talked about our experiences and interests in Japan. In return, we learned that he likes to watch baseball and play tennis. I’ve often remarked that the most frequent question I receive in Japan is “Until what time do you work in the US” and the Crown Prince did not disappoint me. I would have liked to return the question, but it seemed a bit too much like asking, “So what exactly does a Crown Prince do all day?”
We could see tanuki, a fox-like animal native to Japan, from the window overlooking the garden. The latter provided some levity as it kept darting across the lawn. I’d never seen one before so I jumped out of my seat when he invited us to have a look. The Crown Prince was seated next to me and could see that I was having trouble seeing it from my position. Unfortunately, our handler didn’t hear him say “mite kudasai” (please look) and was surprised when I jumped up not once, but twice during our audience to see the tanuki. Fortunately, no one attempted to wrestle me to the ground and the audience concluded without a headline-grabbing international event.