Japan’s Emperor Emeritus put much trust into late grand chamberlain

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
Makoto Watanabe, former grand chamberlain

When the Emperor Emeritus made his official visit to the United Kingdom as Emperor back in 1998, he is said to have introduced his grand chamberlain to Queen Elizabeth by saying, “His great-grandfather served my great-grandfather.”

For a decade from 1996, Makoto Watanabe, who died at age 85 on Tuesday, was grand chamberlain to the Emperor Emeritus during his reign as Emperor.

Watanabe’s father, Akira, was a schoolmate of Emperor Showa — the Emperor Emeritus’ father — and served as a member of the House of Peers, while his great-grandfather, Chiaki, was the Imperial Household Minister during the era under the reign of Emperor Meiji.

Recalling the time when Watanabe became aware that his role would be to serve the then Emperor, he said without bragging about it, “My thought was that I was naturally being put into such a world.”

One of his subordinates later said, “He spent time at the Imperial Palace as much as needed, dedicated to serving the Imperial family and regularly putting off his personal life.”

Even after Watanabe stepped down from his role as grand chamberlain, he served as an adviser to the Imperial Household Agency from April 2012 to June 2020.

He also wrote a book about his 10½ years as the “butler of the Imperial family” that has become an indispensable text on knowing what the then Emperor is like. From his descriptions of daily life at the palace and conveying the feelings of the then Emperor and Empress regarding their official duties, readers can sense the deep trust the Emperor Emeritus and Empress Emerita had in Watanabe.

When Watanabe was hospitalized last autumn, he was said to have told those around him, “I don’t want to let the Emperor Emeritus and Empress Emerita know about this, for they would worry about me.”