Imperial fever, imperial fervor

April 30, 2019 literally marks the end of an era.  The 30 year imperial reign of Akihito, the Heisei emperor, will come to an end as his majesty abdicates to a well-deserved retirement.  The next day, his son, Crown Prince Naruhito, will ascend to the Chrysanthemum Throne and a new imperial reign, Reiwa, begins.

The Imperial Household and the Government of Japan have been making preparations for these events for over a year and, for the past few months, others have also been getting in on the act.  Japanese have been bombarded with Heisei and imperial retrospectives in both broadcast and print media.  Cake shops have been creating special commemorative confectioneries.  The exhibitions of museums and galleries have also focused on similar themes.  (Click here for details of one such display last January.)

If you’re in the vicinity of Tokyo’s Imperial Palace, you’ll find an interesting type of retrospective display at Sannomaru Shozokan (Museum of the Imperial Collections), the small art museum inside the East Garden that specializes in art work that formerly was in the private collection of the Imperial family and now belongs to the people of Japan.  The exhibit is entitled “Tracing Their Majesties’ 30 Years Through the Poems of Their Majesties the Emperor and the Empress”.


The title intimidated me a bit at first, as I assumed the exhibit would all be in Japanese (and I’m not a big fan of Japanese poetry).  However, the exhibit included excellent English translations of most of the poems as well as photographs and a number of other items relating to the Imperial couple.  A nearly life-sized portrait of the Emperor and Empress painted just last year occupies pride of place on the far wall of the gallery.

Writing poetry at New Year’s is a centuries-old tradition of the Japanese Imperial court.  Utakai Hajime, or Imperial New Year’s Poetry Reading, is an annual ceremony presided over by the emperor at which various participants (including commoners) write and share their poetry on a pre-decided theme.  Whether you are poetically-inclined or not, it is difficult not to admire the adept use of language involved.  In Japanese poetry, this includes limiting the number of syllables used and selecting just the right kanji characters.  Past themes used during the Heisei era have included such simple concepts as “light”, “quiet”, “book” and “waves”.

The exhibit includes poems of these past themes, arranged together with photographs of the Emperor and other members of the Imperial family suitable to the theme.

Other Heisei memorabilia are also displayed.  Particularly interesting were displays of the professional accomplishments of the Emperor and Empress, unrelated to their Imperial position.  The Emperor is a marine biologist with a number of research publications to his name, while the Empress is an accomplished (and award-winning) author of children’s books.

This small museum is often overlooked by visitors to the East Garden, but it is always worth a visit.  The exhibits change frequently and this exhibit will end at 4:30 pm on April 21, 2019.  The next exhibit, entitled “Flowers of Felicitations” will open on May 3, 2019.

There is no charge to visit the East Garden or the Sannomaru Shozokan, but keep in mind that it is closed on Mondays and Fridays.

Just a five minute walk from Hirakawa-mon, a gate at the north side of the East Garden (near Takebashi subway station), is another tiny museum currently hosting an homage to the upcoming Imperial occasion.

The Kyoritsu Women’s University Museum has a display of Imperial garments now through May 20, 2019.  The museum is essentially a single room gallery housed in Building No. 2 of this urban university campus and its revolving exhibits tend to focus on garments, largely from the university’s collection.  Unfortunately, there is nothing in English here, but the displays are such a feast for the eyes that one hardly minds.


The exhibit begins with items related to the Heian Period court and the 11th century novel “Tale of Genji” that immortalized life in that time period.  There is even a large Edo Period folding screen depicting several scenes from the novel.

Next are some Western-style garments worn by Empress Teimei (1884-1951), consort of the Taisho Emperor (1879-1926 r. 1912-1926).  Although they are from the 1930s, because they are mostly formal dresses, their style seems slightly older.

Occupying the central space at the end of the gallery is a spectacular Western-style gown with an embroidered green velvet cape and train that was worn by Empress Shoken (1849-1914), consort of the Meiji Emperor (1852-1912 r. 1867-1912).

Next are several traditional Japanese garments used by Imperial family members in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries.  Even through the glass of the display case, one can see that the silk is of the highest quality.  Most of the garments are intricately embroidered–how many hours went into that, one wonders.  A number of the kimono, even from the 20th century, are of the multiple layers known to be a Heian style of court dress.  The last garment is a sokutai, the Heian period garment worn by men of the Imperial court for formal occasions.  This one is labelled as from the 20th century.  Doubtless the current Crown Prince will wear a garment like this at some point during his enthronement ceremony on May 1.

One of the last items in the exhibit is a set of cards for a traditional Japanese card game.  The game involves having sufficiently memorized a set of traditional waka poems that you can spot the card containing the poem as someone begins to read it out loud.  This particular set comprises poems from the “Tale of Ise”, a Heian period poetry collection.

This is a small gallery and probably not worth making a special trip, but if you’re in the neighborhood, by all means, drop in.  The exhibit is free of charge and is open 9:30 to 16:30, Monday through Friday, except on public holidays).  As it is inside an urban university campus, it is necessary to sign in with the guard just inside the door of Building #2 and get a pass to operate the elevator to the basement museum.  Think of it as an off the beaten path adventure.

© 2019 and Vicki L. Beyer
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