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On Assignment

On Assignment
Within the Imperial Palace
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Palace at Tokyo’s Center

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By Robert M. Poole Photographs by Sam Abell

The heart of Tokyo shelters the home of Emperor Akihito—a modern ruler who studies fish, writes poetry, and preserves the traditions of the world’s oldest monarchy.

Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

My assignment was to penetrate that curtain. I wanted to meet the small community of people—a thousand or so—who keep the palace running, who work behind the scenes to prepare for state banquets, who understand the value of court traditions such as cormorant fishing, New Year’s poetry contests, and the intricacies of gagaku, traditional music performed by court musicians. And eventually I hoped to see the man at the center of this cryptic world, Emperor Akihito, son of the late Emperor Hirohito and symbol of the Japanese state.

With that ambitious agenda in hand, Sam Abell and I presented ourselves at the Sakashita Gate on a beautiful spring day. Willows danced in the breeze and swans cruised the moat, escorted by fat carp. We trudged up the stairs of the Imperial Household Agency and explained our mission to a palace official. He frowned. He fidgeted. He laughed outright at a couple of our requests, which involved seeing the Emperor at work. We showed him National Geographic articles on the Vatican, Windsor Castle, the Kremlin. He skimmed them and put them down on the coffee table between us. “These are impressive,” he said. “But it is no passport here.” Sam and I traded worried glances. This was going to take some time.

Over the course of a year, we took small steps, faithfully crossing the moat, pressing court officials persistently but politely, keeping in mind the advice of Nob Okawara, Editor of National Geographic in Japan.

“Don’t be cowboys!” Nob admonished—his way of urging us not to be pushy Americans. We gradually found our way around the palace grounds, where azaleas were beginning to bloom, a spattering of pink against glossy leaves. We would see more, eventually meeting the Emperor and Empress one morning while they watched birds on the palace grounds.

When we reached the Imperial Stables, we ran into a wiry man in black boots, silver spurs, and a constant smile. Sumito Matsuzawa, the stable master, was checking over some horses assigned to carriage duty. They were Cleveland Bays of uniform size and color. “That is so they do not stand out,” said Mr. Matsuzawa, who soon had me sitting in the back of an open carriage, being pulled through East Garden by a pair of horses on a practice run. “Any with white spots or other distinguishing features aren’t brought in,” he said, confirming a general impression that was beginning to form: Beyond the moat, the emphasis was on understatement, simplicity, blending in. Everyone, from the Emperor on down, avoided controversy or displays of ostentation, which extended to the horses clomping along in front of us.

Get the whole story in the pages of National Geographic magazine.

Photographer Sam Abell takes you inside the walls of the imperial court.

The world’s oldest monarch is still revered in Japan. What is the value of monarchies in today’s world? Voice your opinion.

Online Extra
Listen to the harmony and resonance of compositions that have entertained the imperial court since the tenth century and learn about the haunting music called gagaku.

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

The term “heir” is often misused. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a person cannot be called an heir to any property “until, through the death of its possessor, he becomes entitled to it.” Thus Crown Prince Naruhito is not heir to the Japanese throne; Emperor Akihito is. Crown Prince Naruhito is “heir apparent” or “heir presumptive.”

Learn more about Shinto, the indigenous religion of Japan. This site outlines the history and main tenets of this ancient and unique belief system.

The Meishin Kyudojo Homepage
The art of kyudo, or traditional Japanese archery, is revealed in this comprehensive website that not only explains the history of this martial art but also explains the equipment used. The site provides a detailed bibliography and list of educational resources.

All United States Kendo Federation
This Web page discusses the history of kendo, or Japanese fencing, and describes a basic kendo practice session. There are several links to other aspects of kendo as well.

Bonsai on the Web
This page provides links to bonsai enthusiasts, nurseries, and suppliers, as well as articles about the art of bonsai.


Reischauer, Edwin O. Japan: The Story of a Nation. 3rd ed. Charles E. Tuttle Co., 1998.

Dunn, Charles J. Everyday Life in Traditional Japan. Charles E. Tuttle Co., 1997.

Large, Stephen S. Emperors of the Rising Sun: Three Biographies. Kodansha International, 1997.

Sasamori, Junzo and Gordon Warner. This Is Kendo: The Art of Japanese Fencing. Charles E. Tuttle Co., 1997.

Onuma, Hideharu, and others. Kyudo: The Essence and Practice of Japanese Archery. Kodansha International, 1993.


Bornoff, Nicholas. The National Geographic Traveler: Japan. National Geographic Books, 2000.

Fallows, Deborah. “Japanese Women,” National Geographic, (Apr. 1990), 52-83.

Japan: Of Tradition and Change. National Geographic Videos, 1980.

Graves, William. “Human Treasures of Japan,” National Geographic, (Sept. 1972), 370-379.

Shor, Franc. “Japan, the Exquisite Enigma,” National Geographic, (Sept. 1972), 733-777.

Moore, W. Robert. “Face of Japan,” National Geographic, (Dec. 1945), 753-768.


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