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Sunday, Jan. 18, 2009

WEEK 3

The Imperials are well connected

Like royals around the world, Japan's now have their own online presence


Staff writer

The posting of Queen Elizabeth II's Christmas Message on YouTube last year made news around the world. Less well known is the fact that Japan's Imperial family has been offering videos among other entertaining content on their Web site for the last five years. Admittedly, RealVideo, Quicktime and Windows Media are not as up-to-the-minute as YouTube, but, for an institution that is said to have continued since 660 B.C., the clips represent a pretty swift adaptation to new technology.

News photo
Digital royalty: Now the curious can watch the Imperial family playing in their garden or read the Emperor's New Year's greeting online. YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTO

Videos are uploaded to the the Imperial Household Agency's site ( www.kunaicho.go.jp ) each New Year's Day and on the birthdays of the Emperor, Empress, Crown Prince and Crown Princess. As both the Emperor and Crown Princess were born in December, early January is a veritable film festival for Imperial watchers.

In the most recent New Year's video, the extended Imperial family is seen watching its two most recent arrivals, Princess Aiko (Crown Prince Naruhito and Crown Princess Masako's daughter) and Prince Hisahito (Prince Akishino and Princess Kiko's son), as they play with a wooden toy.

The video comes with a musical soundtrack but without the animated conversation that is taking place as the children drop balls through a maze.

Meanwhile, the Emperor's most recent birthday video, posted late last month, documents the monarch, resplendent in a gray double-breasted suit, strolling the palace grounds with his wife and stopping along the way to admire the Fuyuzakura (winter-flowering cherry blossoms). The video is also without a live soundtrack and is under two minutes long.

A far cry from Queen Elizabeth II's seven-minute spiel on YouTube, you say?

Well, maybe. But the Emperor does have an online voice. Each year the texts of his traditional New Year greetings are uploaded in both Japanese and English.

"The impact of the global financial crisis has also been felt in Japan, and it concerns me that many people are facing hardship due to worsening economic conditions," he said to kick off his 21st year as monarch.

That sentiment placed him firmly in step with not only Queen Elizabeth II but also King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden, Queen Margrethe II of Denmark and King Albert II of Belgium, all of whom used their recent Christmas or New Year's messages to urge fortitude in the face of economic hardship. And, like the Emperor and the queen, all of them chose to do so online.

Most royal families have been making increasingly bold forays into cyberspace of late, using not just videos but all manner of online amusements. While few match the adventurism of the British, Japan's Imperial household is holding its own against the others.

For example, Japan's monarchy has by far the most sophisticated cell-phone site. Want to check which flowers are in bloom in the East Gardens of the Imperial Palace this month? You can do so with the tap of a thumb.

Then there's the matter of online poetry. As host of the Imperial New Year's Poetry Reading, the Emperor publishes a selection of his own waka poems online, in Japanese and English, once a year. The only other royal site that comes close is the Saudi Arabian site commemorating King Abdul Aziz al-Saud, which offers a 1998 lyric commemorating the centenary of his conquering of Riyadh.

The Imperial Household Agency cedes ground to the Dutch, however, in terms of online virtual tours. Visitors to the famed re-creation of Huis ten Bosch in Nagasaki will be pleased to know they can compare it to the real thing in The Hague, courtesy of 360-degree panoramic views available on the Dutch royal family's Web site.

The Swedish royal family's Web site gets marks for interactivity — visitors can send postcards from the site to friends — and in terms of practicality, the Danish win hands down. They even have a "positions vacant" page, which in early January was advertising for a maid.

That's not to say the Japanese Imperial family should merely follow suit — online presence must reflect national character, so there's no need for imitation. But if the flamboyance of a YouTube channel is judged inappropriate, then what else could the Imperial Household Agency do online?

Web-production wiz Teruki Uehara, from Tokyo's Jam Communications, was coaxed into offering some respectful suggestions.

An "Imperial Family Album" could be established for photos and videos, he said, and a children's site explaining the Imperial family system and its role could also be made.

"Japanese culture is founded on a strong connection with nature," he explained, so it would also be good to "have some photos, videos and texts introducing the natural scenery" that exists inside the Imperial Palace and other residences.

Instead of adding "short-term contents, such as blogs," the Imperial family's Web site should focus on presenting its "long-term" culture, traditions and activities, he concluded.

Another courtly adviser contacted, Serhat Uenaldi, who has just finished a thesis on the Spanish and Thai monarchies at Berlin's Humboldt University, suggested that the Internet presents all royal families with a choice: Either jump in head first, or deliberately remain aloof.

The first choice offers the chance to "steal the thunder of the sensationalist press and gossiping." The second, he says, makes them seem "calm and detached, like an old sage, and as solid as a rock."

While the Imperial Household Agency's soundless online videos are a bold step, they suggest that royalty in this country has opted for being the rock.



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