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Tizzy over emperor’s China audience

December 16, 2009

Just one month after U.S. President Barack Obama set off a furore in the blogosphere with his deep bow to Japanese Emperor Akihito, the elderly royal is back in the headlines due to a hastily arranged audience granted to China’s heir apparent.

Visiting foreign dignitaries are often granted audiences with the emperor — nothing unusual there.

But the meeting of Chinese President Hi Jintao’s likely successor, Xi Jinping, with Akihito sparked a furore in the Japanese media when it was revealed that the government had obtained a waiver of a customary requirement that applications for royal audiences be made a month in advance.

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The decision prompted an outpouring of criticism from conservative as well as liberal media, opposition lawmakers and even some ruling party members, who charged that Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama’s three-month-old government was making “political use” of the emperor, a sensitive topic in a country where World War Two was fought in the name of Akihito’s father, then-Emperor Hirohito.

Japan’s U.S.-drafted, post-World War Two constitution designates the emperor as a “symbol of the State” without political power, although Akihito, who turns 76 next week,  has played an important diplomatic role in improving ties with Japan’s Asian neighbours, including through a historic 1992 visit to China, during his two decades on the throne.

Circumventing the one-month “rule”, said to have been created by Imperial Household Agency bureaucrats to protect the frail emperor’s health, also raised concerns in some quarters that Hatoyama’s government was leaning too far towards long-time regional rival  China and distancing itself from key security ally Washington, with whom ties are being frayed by a feud over a U.S. Marine airbase on Japan’s southern island of Okinawa.

Hatoyama says he wants to strengthen the decades-old U.S.-Japan alliance, long seen as vital to regional stability, but also improve ties with China given its growing  economic clout.

Ruling Democratic Party heavyweight Ichiro Ozawa, just back from heading a huge delegation of lawmakers to Beijing, denied he had pressed for Xi’s meeting with the emperor, but lashed out at critics and defended the decision to set it up , saying the “one month rule” was the creation of bureaucrats and had no legal basis.

Xi,  perhaps mindful of the controversy,  thanked Akihito for taking time from his “busy schedule” for the audience, Kyodo news agency reported.

He also steered clear of imitating Obama’s deep — and deeply controversial back home — bow from the waist.

Video footage of  the royal audience included no direct shot of Xi bowing, but judging from his shadow on the door,   he briefly inclined his head before entering the room where the audience took place and shaking hands.

China is a stickler for correct diplomatic protocol when it hosts visitors of its own, and no doubt its officials spent some time working out how Xi should finesse his bow to the emperor.

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