Being Emperor amid the Pandemic / Staying Close to the People through Remote Meetings

Courtesy of Imperial Household Agency
The Emperor and Empress use a videoconferencing system at the Akasaka Imperial Residence in Tokyo on Jan. 27 to meet residents in Kyushu, which was hit by torrential rain in July. The Imperial couple went far beyond the scheduled time to speak to the people.

Late at night on Feb. 13, an earthquake measuring up to an upper 6 on the Japanese seismic intensity scale of 7 rattled the Tohoku region. As an aide headed to the Emperor to report the immediately gathered information, the Emperor had apparently been up and concerned about the situation.

The Emperor had planned an online meeting on Feb. 16 with residents of Fukushima Prefecture, ahead of the 10th anniversary of the March 11, 2011, Great East Japan Earthquake. As a number of people were injured, and water and power outages occurred in some areas affected by the recent earthquake, the Emperor decided not to go ahead with the plan. Aftershocks and heavy rain might also trigger landslides, so “priority should be given to expediting the response to the quake-affected,” he said.

Communicating with the people through online meetings paved the way for the Emperor to be close to residents in disaster-affected areas during this time when he cannot leave Tokyo due to the novel coronavirus pandemic. Initially, his aides and others close to him were cautious about such remote meetings, fearing that it might give the impression that the Emperor was willingly abandoning direct interactions with the people.

The turning point came in August when the Emperor took part in an international conference online to discuss preventive measures against water-related disasters amid the pandemic. Researchers from around the world exchanged views on concerns over people reluctant to evacuate due to self-restraint in going out and the importance of international cooperation in the water and sanitation fields to prevent the further spread of infections.

That was the first occasion for the Emperor to be engaged in this type of online activity, connected to the outside world from the Akasaka Imperial Residence. After participating in the conference, the Emperor said, “I felt connected to people.”

At the end of July, infections again were surging throughout Japan, with the number of infected people exceeding 1,500 a day. The Imperial Household Agency had hoped the pandemic would be contained in the summer and that the situation would likely be back to normal as before the outbreak. The surge in virus cases, combined with a change in the agency’s perception of the situation, led to an expansion of the Emperor’s online activities from autumn onward.

“The Emperor experienced an online meeting and had a good impression,” one of his aides said. “Of course, that played the biggest part.”

Front-line medical staff

The Emperor used a videoconferencing system to interact online with people in Japan for the first time in November. The Akasaka Imperial Residence was connected over the internet to the Japanese Red Cross Medical Center in Shibuya Ward, Tokyo, and three affiliated hospitals in Fukushima, Naha and Kitami, Hokkaido.

“It’s the first time for me to see this,” the Emperor said as he and the Empress watched a video feed showing medical staff putting on protective suits in a hospital. During the live transmission, the Emperor could hear the front-line medical workers express their concerns over staff shortages and clusters.

The Emperor also recognized the importance of psychological care for medical staff.

“The Emperor and Empress remotely visited three distant locations without placing a heavy burden on the hospitals,” said a senior official of the Japanese Red Cross Medical Center. “They also helped strengthen our resolve to combat the virus.”

Disaster-affected residents

On Jan. 27, the Emperor’s first “online visit” to a disaster-stricken area was realized. He spoke to residents, some of whom had lost family members, in four municipalities in Kumamoto Prefecture, which was devastated by torrential rain last July.

“The accounts of each one of them shed light on the hardships in the affected areas, which are often difficult to understand while in Tokyo,” said Yasuhiko Nishimura, the head of the Imperial Household Agency who was also present during the online meeting.

Frequent online activities highlight more challenges, however. It has been pointed out that it is often difficult for people other than those involved to understand the thoughts behind these virtual events.

In December 2019, the Emperor visited typhoon-stricken areas of the Tohoku region, his first such visit since his enthronement that May. The image of the Emperor and Empress silently bowing in the rain left a strong impression.

The Emperor’s appearance in this way reminds many people that he is a symbol of the unity of the people.

On the other hand, during online visits, there is always a limit to the Imperial couple’s practical movement, thereby the images conveying such activities tend to be those of the Emperor and Empress staring at a monitor. When juxtaposed to images of them listening to online lectures and making virtual observation tours, it is difficult to tell the difference.

The agency is well aware that there is a wide gap between directly interacting with people and remotely meeting them.

“We’ve just started from scratch using online methods,” an aide said. “Through trial and error, we will continue to improve the use of online activities.”