Japan emperor, empress join commoners in 1,000-year-old toast to poetry

The emperor and empress of Japan shared poetry known as 'tanka,' a 31-syllable form that prizes subtlety, at an annual reading Thursday. The royal couple feted their walks in the palace garden during 51 years of marriage.

Imperial Household Agency of Japan/AP
Emperor Akihito (seated center left) and Empress Michiko (seated center right) and other imperial family members listen to poetry by Crown Prince Naruhito (standing at left) during the annual poetry reading ceremony at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo on Thursday.

Japan’s Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko rejoiced in more than 50 years of life together at Thursday’s annual palace poetry reading ceremony, an annual tradition that goes back more than 1,000 years.

The couple, who married in April 1959, each wrote poems that reflected on walks together in the palace garden around the time of their golden wedding anniversary last year. This year’s theme was “light.”

Tuxedo-clad singers chanted the poems in an elaborate, nationally televised imperial ceremony that also included the reading of poems submitted by ordinary citizens.
All the pieces were in the form of 31-syllable ancient Japanese “tanka,” a form so brief that one allows only subtle hints at meaning.

Michiko wrote:
“As I walk by your side
“The path stretches far ahead
“Though ’tis now evening
“Yonder in the distance
“A glow of a lingering light.”

Michiko, the first commoner to marry into the royal family, has become a national icon of gracefulness and intelligence.

Akihito contributed a poem about green grass growing on the path as the sunlight filtered through the trees, a scene he saw during a walk in the palace garden with his wife in the spring.

Their 1959 wedding was a national sensation that also marked the beginning of Japan’s postwar economic boom.

The Imperial Household Agency said it accepted more than 23,000 entries submitted by ordinary citizens. Of the entries, 172 came from overseas, including 58 each from the US and Brazil.

Experts had selected 10 of them to be read along with the royal family’s compositions, with their authors invited to the ceremony. The winners ranged in age from 48 to 94 years old.

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