Emperor’s release of New Year’s message reflected careful approach

Courtesy of the Imperial Household Agency
With the Empress at his side, the Emperor delivers his New Year’s message, which was recorded at the Akasaka Imperial Residence on Dec. 28.

“We look forward to meeting everyone in person again after the novel coronavirus pandemic subsides,” the Emperor said in a video message posted on the Imperial Household Agency website at 5:30 a.m. on New Year’s Day, sitting alongside the Empress.

The Emperor’s aides and others initially assumed the message – which served as both his annual New Year’s thoughts and his remarks on the cancellation of the people’s visit to the Imperial Palace – would take two or three minutes. However, the script the Emperor and Empress wrote was 1,317 characters, which took 6 minutes 45 seconds to read.

In the message, the Emperor spoke frankly about “the difficulty of balancing preventing the spread of infections with economic activity,” while expressing appreciation for the efforts of medical, health-care and other workers, and concern for people struggling with poverty after losing jobs or homes.

The Emperor’s message came roughly a year after the first infection was confirmed in Japan. His words expressed the accumulated insights and emotions he had gained through online meetings and 20 sessions spent learning from experts.

When the New Year’s message began streaming at 5:30 a.m., the Emperor was conducting the Shihohai, his first ceremony of the year.

The Emperor insisted that his message to the people be released at the same time as this imperial rite, which honors Ise Jingu Shrine and the gods of the four directions to prevent disasters and pray for happiness.

Yet some criticized the intertwining of the message, a public act, with the imperial court ritual, a private one.

However, this was in line with what his father the Emperor Emeritus expressed in a video message five years ago, when he said, “First and foremost, I have considered it important to pray for the well-being and happiness of the people.”

The agency said the Emperor “wanted it to be taken as an expression of his belief that words should be accompanied by deeds.”

The Emperor’s message to the public came much later than those given by European monarchs, most of whom made calls for unity in the early days of the pandemic.

A former aide recalls the Emperor skillfully avoiding making political comments when he was asked for them abroad as crown prince.

“Early on he was aware of the impact of his words,” the former aide said, showing understanding for how the Emperor has cautiously monitored the difficult situation of the pandemic.

The king of the Netherlands won support from the Dutch public in March last year with an inspiring television message, but was criticized in autumn for visiting his Greek villa.

The king of Sweden created a stir when his statement of “I think we have failed” was taken as a criticism of the government’s coronavirus measures.

Ayako Miyakawa, who works at a Swedish university hospital, said, “His remarks were twisted and created a situation that could have led to national divisions or political propaganda.”

Ever since the first state of emergency, the Emperor has always worn a mask when he appeared on camera, except for when cultivating rice at the Imperial Palace, during the ceremony for the proclamation of the crown prince and for his video message.

Though some who took part in his online meetings said they wished to see his face, he has kept up his mask-wearing. While he has not said so explicitly, he is conveying the importance of wearing a mask, which is a pillar of Japan’s coronavirus measures.

Fumio Misonou, 62, who was the Emperor’s classmate in Gakushuin University’s Department of History, said he has been keeping an eye on media reports about the Emperor since their class reunion in June last year was postponed.

“His attitude of incorporating the new remote activities while continuing to cherish ancient Imperial rites shows how he approaches every single thing sincerely,” he said.

The Emperor will remain cautious and proceed steadily, even in the course of major changes. The symbol of the Reiwa era has taken this attitude as he stands with the people to fight against an unfamiliar virus.