When the Tokyo 2020 Olympics opening ceremony takes place Friday, one person will be conspicuously absent, Empress Masako. It’s not an accident and it’s very likely a deliberate snub to the much reviled International Olympic Committee (IOC) executives, who are residing in the finest five-star hotels in the city—while the citizens are told to stay home and buckle up in Tokyo’s fourth state of emergency.
As an honorary patron for the Tokyo 2020 Games, the Japanese emperor is obligated to host IOC executives and visiting heads of state. However, Naruhito is strategically displaying his concern for the public health risks accompanying the Games. It is incredibly rare for the emperor to vocalize even a suggested opposition to an act of government.
As a symbolic sovereign with no governing power, Emperor Naruhito must tread a delicate line that limits his ability to vocalize anxiety about the Olympics. However, the emperor has devised novel solutions around his constitutional limitations, just like his pacifist father.
During his reign, Emperor Akihito, who lived through World War II, professed in his speeches an admiration for Japan’s post-war constitution, which renounced war, gave women equal rights, and transformed the country into a democracy. During the second administration of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Emperor Akihito’s remarks directly contradicted the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s efforts to amend the constitution and turn Japan’s Self-Defense Forces into an army that could wage war. When Akihito announced his wish to abdicate in August 2016, after careful leaks to Japan’s public broadcaster, NHK, it took the wind out of the sails for constitutional reform in Japan, despite Abe’s popularity at the time.
Unlike, say, the royal family in Britain, the imperial family in Japan does not speak freely, they don’t write tell-all books or appear on Oprah. Access to them is strictly controlled and newspaper articles about them must be written in a special formal Japanese.
The emperor, forbidden from involving himself in matters of government, almost never gives one-on-one interviews. Nevertheless, the imperial family does on choice occasions communicate their thoughts to the public through careful leaks to chosen palace reporters, or via their loyal staff.
For example, on June 24, a month before the opening of the Olympics, the grand steward of the Imperial Household Agency, which oversees all matters related to the imperial family, Yasuhiko Nishimura, stunned the palace press corps at a routine press conference.
“Amidst the voices of anxiety from the people, I infer that His Majesty the Emperor is worried that the holding of the Olympic and Paralympic Games, in which he serves as the honorary patron, will lead to the spread of the infection,” he said.
When a reporter asked for clarification on the intention of the statement, Nishimura replied, “This is my observation.”
“Even if this is an observation, it would have a significant impact if published. With this in mind, can it be released?” another palace reporter said to Nishimura.
“Yes. I recognize this is on the record,” the grand steward said.
Hideya Kawanishi, an associate professor at Nagoya University’s Graduate School of Humanities and historian of Japan’s symbolic imperial system, offered the following commentary to a weekly magazine at the time.
“There is no doubt that Grand Steward Nishimura reflected His Majesty's thoughts with his permission. The Emperor is acutely aware of the influence of his remarks, and chooses his words carefully on a daily basis. For His Majesty to authorize the disclosure of such an in-depth ‘observation’ on a sensitive matter like the Olympics was certainly a surprise.”
But the surprises keep coming.
Recently, in what appears to be a genius political maneuver, news emerged that the imperial couple hadn’t been vaccinated in the hospital on the premises of the palace but, rather, in a more private place where they couldn’t be observed by the press corps.
“Officially, the emperor has been vaccinated but no one knows whether the empress has received her second shot or even a first shot,” an individual with access to the Imperial Agency told The Daily Beast.
Indeed on July 6, the Imperial Agency announced that the emperor had received his first shot of a vaccine, but pointedly declined to discuss whether the empress had also been vaccinated. State broadcaster NHK dutifully reported it.
In an interview with weekly women's magazine Jyosei Jishin, imperial affairs reporter Midori Watanabe said that only disclosing the Emperor’s vaccination status but not his wife’s feels like “the inoculation status of Empress Masako is deliberately being called into question.”
It could be argued that as the emperor’s wife, and a civilian who married into the imperial family, her health records are private. Yet, the palace press office did not withhold the vaccination status of Emperor Emeritus Akihito and Empress Emerita Michiko.
More likely, Watanabe speculated, is that the imperial family is creating a loophole that would excuse them from an audience with IOC executives, including President Thomas Bach—aka “Baron Von Ripperoff.”
The IOC has been fervently requesting a formal meeting with their majesties since May; it has not gone unnoticed. The Japanese press has begun to refer to the IOC executives, now ensconced in their five-star hotels, derisively as the Gorinkizoku—“the Olympic aristocracy”. The IOC hotshots have been weirdly obsessed about hobnobbing with real aristocracy. “Bach asked for an audience even before the emperor was vaccinated. The sheer audacity!”, said one source close to the Cabinet Agency.
This isn’t the first time that the IOC’s haughty demands have rubbed nations the wrong way. In October of 2014, Oslo politicians were reportedly forced to abandon an Olympics bid because of insane IOC demands. Those demands included fresh fruit in all hotel rooms and a face-to-face meeting with the King of Norway before the opening of the Games, and fancy tiki-tiki drinks afterwards.
Mitigating contagion risks is critical for a country hosting the Olympics with a 20 percent vaccination rate, so if it’s unclear whether the empress is vaccinated, her absence from IOC receptions or the opening ceremony won’t innately imply any opposition to the Games. It’s a winning strategy.
“In principle, their majesties must oblige if the government requests they meet with the IOC executives. However, the situation changes if they aren’t fully vaccinated… not disclosing the vaccination status of the empress is ‘the last resort’ method of avoiding the obligation,” Watanabe speculated.
The official reason for Empress Masako’s absence is said to be due to the Olympics’ switch to a no-spectator format. Many world and business leaders are also excusing themselves from the opening ceremonies, including former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who helped ensure Tokyo won the Olympic bid.
A source with access to the Imperial Agency described Empress Masako’s absence as “a subtle jab at the Tokyo Olympics Organizing Committee and a snub to the IOC.”
“It’s very clear that the emperor is worried about the harm that will be done by holding the Olympics in the middle of a pandemic,” the person told The Daily Beast.
The timing of her absence, regardless of the reasoning or motive, shows the world the Games’ toll on the Japanese. The positivity rate for COVID-19 in Tokyo is 10.7 percent. The World Health Organization recommends a city under a COVID-19 lockdown should only consider reopening when the positivity rate is 5 percent.
The number of new coronavirus infections in Tokyo reached 1,979 on July 22, and is expected to pass 2,000 today. Hospitals are running out of beds for infected patients and the rising number of confirmed cases among personnel and residents of the Olympic Villages further burden an overwhelmed medical system.
There is one more surprise in store tomorrow.
Kyodo News and others reported that Emperor Naruhito replaced the word “celebrate” in his address at the opening ceremony with a more neutral synonym. The edit mirrors his personal concern that the Olympics will spread infection.
The absence of the empress says a thousand words. And in his very regulated speech, the emperor is driving home his true feelings as well.
It’s a subtle change in words from “celebrate” to “commemorate” but His Majesty is right—these Games are nothing to celebrate.