Letter from Japan

A simple gesture can move a nation.

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His Majesty with PM Takeshita

Twenty-six years ago, on a bleak, chillingly cold and wet February day of 1989, in Tokyo, the Fourth King of Bhutan, His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck, made a ‘small’ gesture at the State Funeral of the Showa Emperor of Japan. That one simple act of humility would define the relations between the two monarchies.

Almost without exception, on that day the people of Japan were in mourning. At Shinjuku Gyoen in an open pavilion the heads of state, from superpowers to kings from small monarchies such as Bhutan, had gathered from around the globe for the State Funeral for Emperor Hirohito.

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The regal State Funeral was held on a cold February day at the end of winter in Japan. Usually along the Pacific coast it is dry and sunny as spring replaced winter. But not that day. There was a misty, freezing and cold rain. It almost seemed as if the heavens were reflecting the grief of the Japanese people.

World leaders from 163 nations, some former foes of Japan from World War II, were officially and formally present or represented for the State Funeral of a political monarch of a geopolitical partner, the nation of Japan. US President George H Bush, French President Mitterrand, King Juan Carlos of Spain and others were there too – dressed in appropriate (for them) Eurocentric mourning black, and not the Japanese culturally correct mourning white or national garb traditional for mourning. They were also warmly insulated from the near freezing temperature in the two white tents.

His Majesty King Jigme Singye Wangchuck was there too but in his traditional Bhutanese attire – the humble knee-length gho. He wore no gloves, not hat, no coat, no muffler or anything but a simple, honest mathra gho to survive the 3-hour ceremony.

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Crown Prince Naruhito has high regard for HM. In 2003 I had a short audience with him and the first question he asked was, “How is HM?” (It was just before 2003 military operations) 

As the ceremony progressed officials and leaders were called upon, one by one, to pay their respects towards the Showa Emperor’s casket. The VIPs got up, walked towards the imperial coffin, bowed to it – reluctantly in some cases – turned and bowed to acknowledge the new Emperor, Akihito. Then, their official duty done, most left in their limos.

His Majesty King Jigme Singye Wangchuck the King of Bhutan, when his name was called, stood up, walked solemnly towards the imperial casket, stopped and bowed deeply and longer – showing his deep compassion for the man who had been the Emperor. He then turned and bowed respectfully to the heir to the Chrysanthemum Throne, new Emperor Akihito.

Then instead of leaving, like many others, he returned to his seat on the icy stand. As other leaders paraded, bowed twice and departed, His Majesty sat there alone, and endured the biting cold, in dignified mourning – for hours until the ceremony ended.

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HM with Emperor Akihito

NHK TV, Japan’s national broadcaster televised the entire State Funeral live and telecast it globally. One of the NHK cameras, on several occasions, went back to the lone figure of His Majesty in the VIP seating. The announcers and the audience began asking, kare wa darey deska? (Who is he?) Soon they found out, and was introduced as the young King of Bhutan. His Majesty was just 34.
The TV commentator also added that the Bhutan King genuinely shared the grief of all Japanese people and is staying until the end of the ceremony. This simple genuine gesture raised the mood of a grief stricken nation and teary smiles. His Majesty became very popular, which in turn led to Japanese people knowing about Bhutan. He received wide press coverage. A newspaper almost covered a whole page with his portrait.

Almost three decades later the Japanese people still talk with awe and fondness about that simple and genuine action of His Majesty the King. It generated immense goodwill, which continues to strengthen the bonds the Japanese and Bhutanese people even today.

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An unofficial portrait of the King of Simplicity. After the abdication, His Majesty never travelled out to any country – leading a simple life that only He can do 

In 2006, His Majesty has gone on to make another ‘simple’ and yet profound gesture. He abdicated the Golden Throne of Bhutan in favour of His Majesty Jigme Khesar and also established democracy. Perhaps in the simple life that he now leads (he is seen cycling regularly, mingles with ordinary citizens and hitches rides on taxis) one can find an exemplary role model in the greatest monarch of our times. Truly the King of Simplicity – a real Pelden Drukpa.

And as His Majesty turned 60, an important age by Buddhist belief, one can only be proud of having been his subject and pray that the universe shower him with good health so that he continues to inspire, and cycle, and touch more lives and hearts – not just in Bhutan but in the whole world.

(A longer version of this article is published in Bodhisattva King – a book edited by Thierry Matthou and Tshering Tashi) 

(In 1989 I was a student in Italy from where I watched the telecast ‘live’ – with my wife translating the running commentaries. In 2003 when I visited NHK I met one of the production directors of that historic telecast who shared the story to me)

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Early 2000s- In Khasadrapchu School during a mid-term plan review visits, HM sat down in the dusty football field to have some conversation with the children. After the chat was over HM asked a child to hold his hand and “help” him on his feet. The scene was so cute with the kid struggling to pull HM up. (Notice that HM is drinking out of a plastic cup the same tea also served to the kids)

17 thoughts on “Letter from Japan

    1. Dolma

      Our fourth DrukGyalpo is the biggest gift for the bhutanese from heaven. He is just so special and unique. I always pray that we be blessed with a king like him always and forever.

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  1. Our self-proclaimed leaders in the political circle should learn from His Majesty what it means to be a true leader. It is about greatness but just as much about humility. It is about vision as much as about consciousness of the past and the present. It is about being practical as much as about feelings. I could go on and on but never be able to describe adequately the greatness of this leader who is our fourth King, His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck

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  2. Tauchu, You nailed it. As a contemporary of most of today’s leaders sometimes I just feel like……. you know I just smile at the ridiculous behaviour of some of our leaders. Sonam Wangzom, I hope you will emulate him in some ways. Dolma and Chimi – thanks for your comments. I have other stories that I will publish in due course of time

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  3. Our King is that rare Bhutanese who puts his heart into what he does. He does everything with feeling and dedication …. that is the reason why he succeeds in whatever he does. May he have a long, long life, for the sake of the country.

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    1. So true, at a Yeshey. But as Tauchu said, I hope people will really emulate him. In this day and age when morality, integrity and humility are in short supply, HM continues to stand as beacon of hope and as the true role model.

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  4. sonam choki

    He is true father of nation.apart from taking role as king he never fail to protect his people like his own son and daughter.especially to women he put more concern,i still remember 14th april when me n my friend are given ride by our beloved king though sun is not yet set.
    truly Dharma king…

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  5. Eden Dema

    Our K4 with infinite simplicity, grace and kindness is revered within and outside Bhutan. We are blessed for eternity through his wisdom and simplicity. Always pray for his long and healthy life.

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  6. Namgay Wangchuk

    K4 is a god for me. I worship no god nor believe in any religion though I am Bhudhist. The fourth Druk Gyalpo is what I believe as a living Buddha. I admire his benevolence and his doings. I pray for his long life..May our future leaders be or at least follow his steps. I love you your Majesty and I mean it later. Long live the ,”Fourth Druk Gyalpo”.

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  7. Pem Dechen

    Our king has represented us very well at the International arena and where ever we go, small and insignificant we may be we are proudly talked about. It is our duty as well to contribute to the legacies of our great leaders. We cannot be born in a better land anywhere and we must commit to make our country stronger and better !

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