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Ducky tale of a high-flying family

by Thomas Dillon

To paraphrase F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The very rich are different from you and me.”

For starters, they have a helluva lot more money. Or at least a lot more than me. I can’t speak for F. Scott.

But what’s this? Here are two quotes from friends who have rubbed revealing elbows with a family at the very tippy top of Japanese society.

Friend A, speaking of the grandfather: “Completely normal. Very gentle too.”

Friend B, talking of one of the grandsons: “Very relaxed. He ate pizza cheese-first. You know . . . hand up, head thrown back and the cheese dangling down.”

And members of which celebrated family are they describing?

Well, perhaps not the richest, but certainly the most prestigious . . . that of the Emperor of Japan.

The first quote is from a colleague of my wife who used to work in the Imperial Household Agency, and her words refer to the late Emperor Showa.

The second quote is from a friend who once met the younger brother of the crown prince at a reception. Technically speaking, the second son is called the “clown prince.”

I myself have not met any of the Imperial family, but once saw the Emperor at a distance. I pondered clawing through the crowd to shake his hand, but instead settled for a slight nod of the head, which the Emperor — perhaps on the verge of clawing his way after me — took and politely returned.

All so very nice. That seems to be the best word to describe Japanese royalty. They are “nice.”

They are neither as animated — nor as animal — as their renowned British counterparts. And while the United States has no monarch, when it comes to world protocol, the Imperial family continually proves itself superior to U.S. leadership by doing exactly what the Americans do not:

They keep silent.

Of course, there are always those muckraking scholars who love to probe old war wounds and pronounce that the Emperor Showa was as complicit in that woeful aggression as anyone. Furthermore, they and others will also toot warnings of uncomfortable links between Shintoism, the right wing and the state.

In addition, there are those who see the Imperial Household Agency as being much too overprotective and as cloaking the family under secrecy so thick that it can only be sliced as something sinister.

Yet to me the only ominous aspect of the Imperial clan is the creepy way they wave their hands.

So I prefer the word “nice.” From my view, the Japanese sovereign heads are the Steady Eddies of decency. In a world of people and events that are often far less than pleasant, that means plenty.

So I will now offer my “Imperial” story. It is a holiday yarn told to me by an English instructor I had back in college — a woman as nice as her tale.

Once upon a time this English instructor used to tutor Empress Michiko at the palace, in the days when she was a mere princess.

That this instructor never complained about the downshift from tutoring a princess to teaching a two-bit country boy like myself says much about how she received the palace job in the first place. She was a soft-spoken and kindly soul.

Still, not everyone can tutor a princess, even one of commoner beginnings like Michiko. The very first lesson, so said my instructor, was like something out of a cheap comedy. At one end of the table sat the teacher and at the other end — past a few paintings, a door or two, a wall of cabinets, etc., etc. — sat her royal highness.

Yet, as the weeks passed the table between them grew smaller and smaller, till at last tutor and pupil sat across from one another, and became friends.

At holiday time, to show appreciation for her teaching, the Imperial family then gave my instructor a gift — an Imperial duck — with its neck already politely wrung.

My teacher had never received a duck before, let alone one from an Emperor, and was bewildered as to what to do with it. Yet, she realized the plump bird was not meant for decoration, and soon carried it to a local butcher to be dressed.

“See this!” she beamed, holding her prize. “The Emperor gave me a duck!”

But with that the butcher turned pale and refused to even look at the bird, deeming himself unworthy.

So the teacher sought another butcher, who fondled the bird and remarked: “What a lovely duck. I’ve never seen one so fine. Where did you get it?”

“From the Emperor!”

The man jerked back his hands. He felt unworthy as well.

The bird now needed dressing so badly that it was almost ready to stand up and quack the request itself. My teacher thus found a third butcher.

“Where did you find such a beautiful duck!?”

The woman, who was truthful to her bones, hesitated. Then — through a tight smile — exclaimed, “Would you believe it? The poor thing flew smack into the side of my house!”

So the Imperial duck was at last trimmed for the holiday table, where it was served to my instructor’s foreign friends — as she feared Japanese guests might feel unworthy and spit up their meal.

I have not seen this instructor in many years, but the last time I did she proudly displayed a New Year’s greeting from the princess.

“Tell me,” I asked. “What’s Michiko really like?”

“Oh,” came the answer. “I would describe her as . . . nice. Yes, very nice indeed.”

What other word could there be!? Yet — at holiday times and at all times — some things are simply nice to know.

Seasons greeting to everyone.