Being Emperor amid the pandemic / Cancellation of Imperial events a far-sighted decision reflecting care for people

The Yomiuri Shimbun
The Emperor and the Empress, both wearing masks, attend the national memorial ceremony for the war dead at the Nippon Budokan hall in Tokyo on Aug. 15, 2020, at which the Emperor spoke of his thoughts on the calamity of war as well as on the COVID-19 pandemic.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, visits by members of the general public to the Imperial Palace to celebrate the Emperor’s birthday on Feb. 23 have been cancelled for two consecutive years. This is the first time that such Imperial birthday events have been cancelled in successive years since 1989, when the Showa Emperor passed away, and 1990, when his successor (now the Emperor Emeritus) had only recently completed the ceremonies for his ascension to the throne at the start of the Heisei era (1989-2019).

After World War II, the Emperor became a symbol of the state. Enabling people to meet the Emperor in person is something the Imperial family has taken seriously under the system. But those encounters have had to be restricted over the past year. This article looks at how the Emperor is trying to keep close to the people under the circumstances.

On April 7 last year, the government declared the first state of emergency regarding the pandemic. The same day, local governments were told to prepare preventive measures against the novel coronavirus at shelters to be used in case of other disasters or emergencies. Even before that, the Emperor was apparently telling those close to him of his concern over crowding at shelters if a natural disaster were to occur.

“His Majesty was looking beyond the state of emergency. The public had no chance to see him do so though,” said a government source.

Last year, the cancellation of public visits to the Imperial Palace on the Emperor’s birthday was announced on Feb. 17. At the time, the daily number of people who tested positive for the virus in Japan was hovering around 10, apart from those aboard the cruise ship Diamond Princess, which was still anchored at a Yokohama pier.

“There was no decisive factor to support the cancellation, but I heard that His Majesty was cautious about holding the event,” said a specialist who had given advice on the matter to the Imperial Household Agency.

The decision by the Imperial household set a precedent for voluntary cancellations of large-scale events and caused ripples in the government, where some feared its influence over an expansion of self-imposed restraints as well as the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games.

There were even rumors that the agency was reproached by the Cabinet Office for taking such an action. But subsequent data on infections would bear out the appropriateness of the decision. The number of people who tested positive surpassed 20 on the eve of the Emperor’s birthday and increased to 50, 100 and then 200 in March.

The Imperial ceremony to proclaim Crown Prince Akishino’s rise to first in line to the throne, which was originally scheduled for April last year, was postponed as well. Regular events at the Imperial Palace, including garden parties and the opening of Inui Street to the public, were either postponed or cancelled one after another. According to a senior official of the agency, each decision was made on the basis of “not only whether the venue takes necessary preventive measures but also how the people who are suffering would feel,” which is in line with the Emperor’s own feelings, the official added.

Those restraints occurred more or less at the same time as postponements and cancellations of regional events that the Emperor might otherwise have attended. This led to some criticisms that the Emperor was being made less visible. When the first anniversary of his enthronement in May approached, some started voicing their wish for the Emperor to carry out some activities that would be visible to the public, such as issuing message for the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake or conducting online Imperial visits.

Although the agency was aware of the criticism, the Emperor first invited specialists on infectious diseases to the Akasaka Imperial Residence to learn the facts about the pandemic. By doing so, he put into practice what he had said during his birthday press conference last year: “It is important to reflect on duties that have adapted to the changes in society and the times, and to act accordingly … To this end, I will value my opportunities to come in contact with many people and hear from them directly.”

“Perhaps His Majesty read some relevant materials in advance. His questions covered a wide variety of topics,” said one of the specialists, public health center staff member Akane Kasai. She said she felt the Emperor’s keenness through his questions.

Another specialist, National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies Prof. Kenzo Hiroki, said the Emperor’s response to his words still rings in his ears. When Hiroki told him that the virus’ outer layer is an oily membrane, which makes it vulnerable to the grease-cutting power of soap, the Emperor said to him, “That’s why it’s important to wash your hands” as if to confirm it.

Amid the expanding virus outbreak, the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II came around last summer. On that occasion, the Emperor spoke of his thoughts on the virus in public for the first time, during the national memorial ceremony for the war dead, which was attended by mask-wearing participants. The ceremony is one of the most important events that involve the presence of the Emperor. He asked people around him for opinions on whether he should refer to the virus in his speech. In fact, some expressed the view that he should concentrate on the memory of the war dead.

The Emperor also wondered what to do because he did not wish to make any changes in the structure of the words he would speak at the ceremony, which had been polished to a seemingly set form through the Showa and Heisei eras.

The established pattern had three parts: first, consolation of the souls of the war dead; second, recognition of postwar reconstruction; and third, a prayer for peace.

After deep contemplation, he inserted between the second and third parts his wish to overcome the new adversity of the pandemic together with everyone, side by side.

“Since His Majesty spoke of the immediate crisis that we are all facing, the presence of the Emperor, who continues to be caring toward the people in this country, felt all the more closer to everyone,” said a source close to the Imperial household, who knows the background behind the unusual words, in appreciation of the Emperor’s decision to harmonize his profound thoughts on the calamity of war and on the pandemic.