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A photography blog about Tokyo, run by Australian photographer Rohan Gillett

The Emperor’s Last Birthday 2018

December 23, 2018 was the last time Emperor Akihito appeared to celebrate his birthday at Chowaden Hall.  For the eighty-fifth birthday a huge crowd of over 85000 people turned up to with him the best. The weather wasn’t the best for the event, but luckily we only had to put up with some very intermittent light rain during his three appearances.  In the end, I doubt anyone could complain much.

Emperor Akihito making his speech while Empress Michiko looks upon

As I knew it would be the last time to see him on his birthday, I thought to leave my home earlier than usual.  This time I left at 7 am so I would arrive around 8 am, well before the gates would open. Well, what a mistake that turned out to be!  Upon my arrival there was already a line of people making its way to the palace. I’d never seen a crowd there like that before.

The crowd entering through Main Gate.

In previous years everyone had been able to proceed to the Imperial Palace Plaza and join the queue.  This year with the huge crowd, the queue, started at the Wadakura Gate. But as always, one of the key to getting through the security is to have bags with you.  If you have a bag, you need to get that checked and that takes some time.

The Heisei Emperor and his family on the balcony of Chowaden Hall for the last time.

The crowd was enormously receptive to the Emperor, as it always has been.  I think he has been extremely popular over the course of his reign and it certainly showed in December 2018.  Each time appeared on the balcony of Chowaden Hall, enormous cheers went up. One woman next to me was constantly thanking him in loud voice for his years of service to the country and I saw that repeated several times during his three appearances.  It was quite demonstrative of how many people revere or at least have appreciated him.

The Emperor and Empress with their sons, Crown Prince Naruhito on the left and Prince Akishino the right.

All of his immediate family and his granddaughters were there with him:  Crown Prince Naruhito and his wife Princess Masako, plus Prince Akishino and his wife Princess Kiko along with their daughters Kako and Mako.  At their final appearance of the day, they all drew close and gave a bow to the crowd together, I think, in appreciation of everyone coming for the Emperor’s final appearance.

The media attention was intense, as always.

I felt a little strange attending this event though.  The Emperor has been the Emperor for my life in Japan, more than twenty-five years.  When I came, he was sixty years old and now he is eighty-five. Prince Naruhito is now fifty-eight and will be fifty-nine when he takes over from this father.  I wonder what is going through the Prince’s mind as his father’s day of abdication draws nearer? Is he thinking about what the future holds for his country, or is he confidant things will carry on much the same as they did during the era of Heisei?  We’ll have to wait and see.

Always a favourite, Princess Masako.

If you want to see the Emperor make a public appearance, you have one last chance.  On January 2, 2019 he will make his New Year Greetings. If you go, just be prepared for record crowds!  You can see that event’s website here and my article about the Imperial Palace here.

The crowd leaving the Imperial Palace