Photo/IllutrationAttendees holding national flags chant “Banzai” at an event to celebrate the enthronement of Emperor Naruhito in Tokyo’s Chiyoda Ward on Nov. 9. (Toshiyuki Hayashi)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

The evening before Emperor Naruhito’s enthronement parade, the square in front of the Imperial Palace in Tokyo resounded with fervent chants of "banzai" that seemed to last an eternity.

While it may have been an uplifting finale for the attendees and the conservatives that hosted the Nov. 9 event, the chanting also eerily harkened to Japan's imperialistic past, leaving many observers puzzled.

About 30,000 people gathered at the palace entrance to see the televised festivities, which included a performance by all-male idol group Arashi.

Naruhito, along with Empress Masako, appeared on a stone bridge near the entrance to take some of the performances and express gratitude.

In closing, Bunmei Ibuki, former speaker of the Lower House and chairman of the Celebration Committee of the His Majesty the Emperor’s Accession to the Throne, took to the stage with other political leaders and shouted, "Here's to world peace." He then followed up with the chant, "Tenno Heika Banzai" (Long Live His Majesty!).

The attendees, including Arashi, joined the chorus, repeating the chant as they raised their hands in the air.

The event organizer continued to lead the public, as Naruhito and Masako swung a lantern in their hands up and down.

The imperial pair left the venue shortly after, but the banzai chant continued at least 48 times.

As the excitement unfolded outside the palace, viewers taking in the event on TV started chiming in on social media, with one posting, "This endless banzai is frightening."

“Can’t they stop it already?” another added.

Another viewer noted the strange similarity between the scene and the imperial wartime period when young soldiers heading off to the battlefield to give their lives for their country shouted the same salute to Emperor Hirohito, Naruhito's grandfather, posthumously known as Emperor Showa.

"It gives me nothing but an eerie feeling," the viewer wrote.

Supporters of the chant saw it otherwise, however, with one saying, "What's wrong with expression of worship and congratulations (to the imperial couple)?"

Another wrote, "It gave me a sense of unity."

'ORIGIN STORY'

The never-ending banzai was not the only activity that left many scratching their heads.

Before the imperial couple appeared in front of the well-wishers, a fictional "origin story" for the imperial lineage was told.

The presentation included an explanation that more than 2,600 years have passed since the "enthronement" of the nation's first emperor, Jimmu, whose existence is uncertain.

The organizer also introduced a myth about the creation of Japan from the eighth century "Kojiki" (Records of Ancient Matters).

The event was organized by several groups, including Ibuki's committee comprising Diet members, and business and private-sector groups such as Keidanren (Japan Business Federation).

Conservative political group Japan Conference, which is seeking to revise the Constitution, also played a role in the planning.

Given that such groups were behind the event, the repeated hailing to the emperor was perhaps to be expected, according to an event spokesperson, who said, "It was a natural feeling of celebration."

A MODERN CREATION

"Banzai," which translates literally as "10,000 years," is occasionally used in celebratory occasions.

However, its use as an expression of reverence to the emperor dates to 1889, on the day the Constitution of the Empire of Japan, also known as the Meiji Constitution, was promulgated.

According to a memoir by Reijiro Wakatsuki (1866-1949), who twice served as prime minister in the early 20th century, no phrases existed to hail the emperor until that time, with people simply bowing in a gracious manner.

Some university professors and others were not satisfied with that and came up with the banzai chant.

During the state Sokuirei-Seiden-no-Gi ceremony held Oct. 22, in which Naruhito officially proclaimed his ascension to the throne, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe led the participants with three cheers of "Banzai!" after saying, "In celebration of the emperor's enthronement."

A similar "banzai" ritual was observed at the ceremony in 1990 to proclaim the enthronement of Emperor Emeritus Akihito, Naruhito’s father and the first emperor to be enthroned under the current Constitution, which assures that the sovereignty of the nation resides with its people.

THIRST FOR IMPERIAL AUTHORITY

Some people who caught the banzai chanting on TV wondered how it sat with Naruhito and Masako.

"It was a bizarre spectacle," said Takeshi Hara, a professor of history of Japanese political thought at the Open University of Japan, who attended the event.

"The attendees could clearly see the facial expressions of the emperor and empress, either directly or on a screen," said Hara. "Still, they kept chanting without thinking how the couple would receive it."

Hideya Kawanishi, an associate professor of Japanese history at Nagoya University Graduate School of Humanities, suggested that an extended banzai chant is "a reflection of an appetite among conservatives to boost the emperor's authority, like in the prewar era."

By featuring pop idols and other artists, they carefully set up the event to draw in young people and others who might otherwise not be interested in imperial family-related matters, Kawanishi added.

"The word ‘banzai’ once meant promoting militarism and advocating worship of the emperor," he said. "Just think about that."

(This article was written by Ayako Nakada and Keiko Sato.)