A simple gesture can move a nation.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 for the Sixtieth Birth Anniversary)
(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)