"Emperor"


The building was so close to the Dotonburi Canal, that from the top floor we could look almost straight down on the foot traffic on the Ebisu Bridge. Hundreds of people hurried in both directions on the eve of the three-day New Year’s national holiday. They looked like clumps of sand rushing toward the bottleneck of a huge hourglass.

“So we can make things happen just by thinking them?” I asked skeptically. My friend Rich was lecturing me on metaphysics over a tandoori grill at one of Osaka’s popular Indian restaurants.

“That’s what I’m saying. The world is basically plastic to our thoughts.” Rich came to Japan to study martial arts twenty years ago. He now runs a cram school, where Japanese high school students come to learn English conversation after their regular school. He is an avid student himself—of Zen Buddhism, calligraphy, and the tea ceremony. “The entire outer world is submissive to your mind. Your body, your home, the winds and the rain, even the earth itself. When you know this fully, you gain mastery over all of these things.”

“That’s hard to see,” I said, “to put it mildly.”

“Doesn’t matter. It’s true, whether you believe it or not. But you’re not alone. Most people don’t know any of this.”

“I’m relieved. I say, stay with the herd. Especially when they’re totally clueless.”

He laughed. “Suit yourself. But imagine what happens when you have thousands, or millions, of people thinking the same way.” He took a sip of iced tea. “Take war. It’s just the out-picturing of massive amounts of fear and anger in the subconscious of a tribe or a nation. When it boils over into the material world, you get, you know, a Verdun or a Stalingrad.”

“Yeah, I can sort of understand that,” I said. “So maybe I can summon a nice ten-thousand yen note to cover the check just by using my mind.”

“You could. But you’d probably need to meditate for seven or eight years first,” he replied smiling.

Eventually we split the check and headed for our commuter trains.

Right after the New Year break, I took a short trip with two Japanese colleagues to our agency’s office in Brussels. One of our global electronics clients wanted to enter the European market with a new computing product. I directed our team there to develop an ad campaign to support the launch. Our work went well and I knew my boss would be pleased. My Japanese co-workers flew back on Japan Airlines. I stayed an extra day to tour Waterloo and flew back to Japan by myself on Lufthansa.

My flight was strange from the start. I sat in an aisle seat near the rear of the business class. After drinks and dinner, the lights turned low and people reached for blankets and pillows. As I put my head back to relax, I saw from the corner of my eye a small man crawling out from under the curtain separating us from the coach section and come to rest right below the feet of the passenger in the aisle seat of the last row. The man in the seat was a Japanese businessman with his shoes off. He had to lift his feet out of the way of the intruder, now curled up asleep in front of him. This went on for several ludicrous minutes, until the flight attendant came back to rouse the obviously drunken man and guide him back through the curtain to his assigned seat.

We flew over the Arctic Ocean and made a short stop in Anchorage. I got off the plane and looked out the big terminal window. The massive peaks of the Chugash range, spread across the horizon, were smoldering with ice and snow in the wind. I bought a soft drink and a New York Times at the newsstand and re-boarded the plane.

Back in my seat, I took out the newspaper. The front-page headline read:

Hirohito, 124th Emperor of Japan, Is Dead at 87

I read the article, which linked to photos and coverage on the back page. The passenger seated directly across from me, an older Japanese man, woke from a nap and slowly looked over at my paper. Suddenly and very swiftly, he lunged across the aisle, and with a surprisingly powerful motion, tore the newspaper from my hands. Stunned more than actually angered, I sat back and watched him slowly read the front page. He sat motionless for several moments, and then he began to weep profoundly. Trying to respect his sudden grief, I took out a book I had brought. From time to time I glanced over at him. He sat very quietly with my newspaper crumpled in his hands resting in his lap, with a sorrow that seemed to compress his whole body. I turned back to my book and eventually rested my eyes. After a while, I fell asleep myself.

The next day back at the agency was understandably subdued. I went through my mail and a stack of memos. Following the Japanese custom of bringing gifts back from a trip, I distributed small samplers of Belgian chocolate to my team. I also presented a bottle of Mandarine Napoleon, a Belgian liqueur made from tangerines and cognac, recommended by the hotel concierge, to our Group Creative Director.

By the end of the week, we were all back to full speed at work. The lethargy of the long New Year holiday, prolonged by the days following the passing of the emperor, fell away. The days went by, cold but always sunny. In my experience, it never rains in Japan in the winter months.

Some days later, as I walked past the desk of one of my colleagues, I was stopped short by a photo in the Japanese-language newspaper he was reading. It showed a Japanese salaryman in a business suit jumping out of an upper window of a high office building. The photo must have been taken with a telephoto lens, because you could see the man’s face, rigid and resolute, as he began to fall to his death. I asked m