At a Japanese Royal Tea, Reporters Imbibe Culture, Customs


Empress Michiko is not sure whether she will walk behind or ahead of her husband, Emperor Akihito, when the imperial couple visits the United States next month.

In fact, she said she had not even thought about the issue until a reporter questioned her at a rare tea for U.S. journalists Friday.

Her mother-in-law, the Empress Dowager Nagako, made news in 1975 when she obeyed American, rather than Japanese, custom and walked through doors ahead of the late Emperor Hirohito when Akihito's parents made the first visit to the United States by a Japanese imperial couple.

Michiko, who collapsed and suffered a loss of speech on her birthday last Oct. 20, spoke vividly and freely, although in a soft voice.

She noted that she always walks behind the emperor in Japan, and she even asked the reporter for his advice on what she should do when they visit the United States on June 10-26. The reporter fudged his response.

During Friday's tea with nine American correspondents, Akihito was asked what he thought about the Imperial Household Agency's refusal to allow ancient tombs of his ancestors to be opened for academic study.

The tombs, he said, should be treated with respect for the individuals buried in them and should not be opened, even for academic research. The discovery of many other artifacts of Japan's early history alleviates the need to study the tombs, he said.

Many of the emperors' tombs predate Japan's written history, which goes back only to the 7th Century, and for years scholars have urged that the Imperial Household Agency allow them to examine their contents. Some professors believe that the artifacts would show a link to the culture of neighboring Korea and thus raise controversy in Japan.

The 40-minute tea also served to uncover one imperial family secret. Although both Akihito and Michiko have been advertised as fluent in English, only Michiko is comfortable speaking the language.

She addressed all of her guests in English, while Akihito spoke in Japanese with an interpreter.

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