Japan spared protocol blushes after Rodrigo Duterte's Emperor meeting cancelled

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte following his inspection of Japan's coast guard drills in Yokohama on Oct 27, 2016.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte following his inspection of Japan's coast guard drills in Yokohama on Oct 27, 2016. PHOTO: AFP

TOKYO (AFP) - Protocol-conscious Japan dodged a potential diplomatic minefield Thursday (Oct 27) when a meeting between profanity-prone Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and the country's revered Emperor Akihito was cancelled following a death in the imperial family.

Akihito's 100-year-old uncle Prince Mikasa died Thursday and the Emperor will begin seven days of mourning, "cancelling a series of events scheduled during the period including his meeting with President Duterte", a palace spokesman told AFP.

Duterte is on his first trip as president to Japan and was due to visit the palace and meet the 82-year-old figurehead as his final appointment before going home.

The scheduled meeting had Japan on faux pas alert with concerns about Duterte's possible misbehaviour spiking after a video of him meeting President Xi Jinping in China last week showed him apparently chewing gum - considered rude in Japan on such an occasion.

Duterte, who has launched a controversial, deadly crackdown on crime in the Philippines, was also seen standing at the event with his hands in his pockets, another no-no in Japan.

Since arriving in Tokyo Tuesday, Duterte has avoided any major trouble, though the acid-tongued president has kept up his habit of hurling sharp, sometimes profane, insults at world figures, with a fresh tirade against Washington.

Still, a summit meeting with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Wednesday went off without a hitch.

Retired diplomats and officials had expressed concern that the tough-talking former mayor of Davao would offend Akihito - the most revered person in the country - which they warned could have affected bilateral ties.

But on social media, many expressed frustration that Duterte would now not have a chance to prove himself.

"Was worried before that Duterte-san might misbehave in front of His Majesty, but was assured that he is the kind of man who can maintain his manners after seeing his talks with Prime Minister Abe," one user posted.

"I am a bit disappointed that it was called off," another said in a tweet.

"I was looking forward to see how the Philippine president's meeting would go with the emperor," they added.

Duterte, who had told Japanese media how much he was looking forward to meeting Akihito, said he understood the last-minute cancellation.

"I'd like to express my deepest condolence," he told reporters.

"The protocol officer said I should not go there because they are in mourning and I respect that because I would ask for the same request if I were in his shoes."

Japan's emperors were once worshipped as living demigods and the throne is still venerated by much of the public, despite being largely stripped of its mystique and quasi-divine status in the aftermath of World War II.