Unreal Nature

February 18, 2012

Their Last Servant

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:16 am

… they only really ceased to be aristocratic when they lost their last servant.

This is from Wrapping Culture: Politeness, Presentation and Power in Japan and Other Societies by Joy Hendry (1993):

… In this chapter we turn to the wrapping of people by people. In most societies those who command positions of status and power are able, in certain ways, to surround themselves, perhaps protect themselves, by others who will express and confirm their dominant or special role.

… We have already discussed the supreme case of the Japanese emperor and the way he and his family are so well wrapped, spatially, that they are almost never seen. In fact, of course, some people must deal with them, and these provide another example of very effective social wrapping. In a study of members of former aristocratic families, who could themselves be seen as a social layer separating ordinary people from the imperial lineages, T.S. Lebra made the point that though their official status was legislated out of existence in 1947, they only really ceased to be aristocratic when they lost their last servant. The ‘mediating and thereby, boundary-maintaining role’ of the servants ‘kept their status insulated and protected.’

In discussing the lives of the highly secluded children of these aristocratic families, who play within a fenced estate and travel to their élite school in an enclosed carriage, Lebra also  notes that the status of the family is often judged by the demeanour and behaviour of the servants who accompany them when they venture out into the mundane world. If the servants are well groomed and properly trained, they transmit an appropriate message to the world, and even impoverished aristocrats would spend money on the servants’ clothing while maintaining a frugal family table. These children’s servants were also responsible for training their charges in manners and etiquette so it was important that they should set a good example.

… The extent to which the Japanese imperial family are so well wrapped that they are virtual prisoners within their own palaces was brought home to those of us able to meet Prince Naruhito, now the Crown Prince, at the time of his study visit to Oxford. During his time in England, he was much freer than normal to walk about in the outside world, accompanied only by a single policeman, and he expressed very poignantly his joy at being able to do this. His rather solitary, self-conscious figure could be seen on many an afternoon threading his way through the Oxford streets, his bodyguard not far behind him.

Crown Prince Naruhito, 1961 [photo from Wikipedia]

… An interesting parallel at the linguistic level here is to be found in the language used by Japanese people living in Oxford who were presented to the prince during his visit. Many of these were people who would not normally have had an opportunity to meet members of the imperial family and they had little idea how to address him. There was some discussion about this before the occasion, and the chamberlain was able to offer advice, but several of the Japanese people resorted to English when they found themselves face to face with this young prince. I had great sympathy with these people as I had done the same myself. I knew very little of the language suitable for addressing members of the imperial family, but in any case his face and demeanour were those of a youth, someone of an age with one’s students (in my case), and I found it impossible to slot into a suitable Japanese mode of address. It was an easy way out to use the language in which he was being allowed to be more free.

My most recent previous post from Hendry’s book is here.



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