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The Emperor’s New Year’s Day Party

With brightly colored clothes and impeccable attention to protocol, Foreign Service spouse Hilda Lewis hoped to impress at the Japanese Emperor’s 1955 New Year’s reception at the Imperial Palace. As she felt her hat slowly slipping off her head while she bowed to the empress, Lewis knew everything wasn’t going quite according to plan.

Emperor Hirohito and Empress Nagako greet guests to the imperial palace (1946) Agence France-Presse | Wikimedia Commons
Emperor Hirohito and Empress Nagako greet guests to the imperial palace (1946) Agence France-Presse | Wikimedia Commons

Despite a few mishaps, Lewis was dazzled by the food, dancing, and spectacle of the event.

The New Year is the most important national holiday in Japan, and it is full of special traditions. It is a chance for families and visitors to reflect on the past year and their dreams for the future as they celebrate the New Year’s Day feast. It is also one of only two days in which the main area of the Imperial Palace is open to the public. In recent years, on January 2nd the Emperor and the royal family have made a brief and rare public appearance in an inner courtyard for a greeting and speech.

Lewis was in Japan from 1954 to 1956 while her husband, Harrison Lewis, was stationed in Japan as a commercial attaché. During their visit to the Imperial Palace, Japanese Emperor Hirohito was on the throne (he would retire in 1989) and Empress Kōjun was empress consort (kōgō). Kōjun served as empress consort from 25 December 1926 to 7 January 1989, the longest in Japanese history.

Hilda Lewis’s interview was conducted by Robert Lewis starting on April 18, 1987.

Read Lewis’s full oral history HERE.

Drafted by Wendy Erickson

“When we Americans met together, before we went in a group to the Imperial Palace, we sure were a sight!”

Dress to Impress: . . . I could perhaps talk about the New Year’s reception at the Imperial Palace when, before this, we were first of all told (the women) what to wear, what not to wear. We were told not to wear white, which is their mourning color and not to wear black, because it wasn’t celebrating the happiness of the New Year. It had to be a bright pleasant color. The skirt had to go down to the ground. The sleeves had to go down to the wrist, all the way, and the neckline had to come up to your neck and then that was okay. Besides that, we had to have a head cover, so we had to wear a hat with this thing.

When we Americans met together, before we went in a group to the Imperial Palace, we sure were a sight! There was a pink evening skirt, which had a pink evening dress, and over that she wore a pink sweater, anything like that. You didn’t wear gloves, but you wore a hat, so our outfits were quite a put-together thing according to what the formalities were. I think maybe the other nationalities had dresses made in time for themselves.

“I found that the hat I had pinned on with long hair pins, gave a little “swootch” and a little tiny movement, and I thought, ‘Good gosh.’”

Politeness and Protocol: Our entrance to greeting the Emperor on New Year’s Day was according to the seniority of the Embassy, and whoever had been there the longest was the senior. I don’t know when our Ambassador came, but it is by the ambassador’s arrival that the seniority is established. Maybe we were third or fourth or whatever, I don’t remember. The first person taken in, of course, is the ambassador and, following him, his wife, and so on through the counselor of embassy and ranks all the way. Always the husband first and the wife thereafter.

The great hall in which they were, there was a kind of dais, not quite like a stage, a narrow thing that ran along the whole side of the hall. The Emperor stood there and the Empress was at his left, the Princess at his right and the Princesses on her left, going on. The area of this great hall that we walked through—a door towards rather the back, not quite the back, but the near side of the hall—we walked then diagonally to in front, say, twenty feet in front of where the Emperor was. The man would bow to the Emperor and then, walking sideways, he would bow to the Empress. And walking back to the same diagonal place, he would be walking backwards, sideways, and so it was.

Then your father bowed and then, when he walked over to bow to the Empress, I was then in front of the Emperor and I bowed. You bow by putting your hands on your knees and bowing, gracefully, as deeply and entirely as you can. And as I bowed, I found that the hat I had pinned on with long hair pins, gave a little “swootch” and a little tiny movement, and I thought, “Good gosh.” When I walked sideways to the Empress, I was very careful to half lift my face so that the hat would not fall off on the floor, which would not have been … I mean, it would probably have been more amusing to them than I thought, because when I looked up, I saw the Empress had a very friendly smile on her face. Then I followed with this hat, backwards, sideways, to the exit.

“So we all walked out, the men with their high hats and morning coats with the white sack of Empress’s food in their hands.”
Seimon Ishibashi Bridge, Imperial Palace Ray In Manila | Flickr
Seimon Ishibashi Bridge, Imperial Palace Ray In Manila | Flickr

A New Year’s Feast: From there we were led into the New Year’s Reception where all the foreigners were then, and it was more or less chest high tables, because we didn’t sit down. Each place was laid in one thing of all the auspicious New Year’s things, in little dishes, and a little thing of sake cup, a little thing of sake, which poured into it. You were supposed to take the sake cup along as your remembrance.

And also, everything that you ate was fine, but you ate very sparingly because that large napkin was there to put all the other food on to take home to the servants at home as coming from the Empress’s table. So we all walked out, the men with their high hats and morning coats with the white sack of Empress’s food in their hands. It was quite a scene! I took the [other dishes], I didn’t understand it. It was only the sake cup, so I have two Empress’s dishes still that I put in there. The next year, I knew that’s what you shouldn’t take, but I had already had that the year before, because somebody saw me and said, “Oh, you don’t take those. You take only the sake cup.”

Another Occasion: Then, we were on another occasion at the Imperial Palace when they performed the ceremonial dances, the traditional dances. I had a sketch pad along, not too big a one, and I did some of the drawings there, which I later colored. One of them is called “Old Rats.” Their kimonos had rat designs. It was sort of a yellowy-orange and they had rats all over. I’m not saying that quite right, but there were rat designs a little bit scattered around it. Then, there was a thing in green and there were always two or three dances that would be performed in rhythm. Back of these dancers, they would have a man beating on a gong to give the rhythm. They had some other little melodious thing, not too obtrusive.