Emperor’s virtual visits might continue after pandemic

The Yomiuri Shimbun
The Emperor participates in a tree-planting ceremony remotely at the Akasaka Imperial Residence in Minato Ward, Tokyo, on May 30.

The Emperor and Empress began participating in virtual visits seven months ago as a way to interact with people in various parts of the country amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Imperial Household Agency is considering continuing such visits even in the post-pandemic era.

Sense of togetherness

On May 30, the Imperial couple participated in a tree-planting ceremony remotely from the Akasaka Imperial Residence in Minato Ward, Tokyo.

The actual ceremony was held in Shimane Prefecture.

The Imperial couple had communicated with members of the public remotely from their residence on previous virtual visits, but on the day of the tree-planting ceremony, the Emperor participated in a virtual visit outdoors for the first time.

“The Emperor has arrived” announced the master of ceremonies as a car carrying the Imperial couple came to a stop at a grass-covered spot within the premises of their residence.

The “arrival” was shown on a large screen at the site of the ceremony in Shimane Prefecture, where attendees waved national flags to welcome them.

During the ceremony, the Emperor made a few remarks and, together with the Empress, shoveled earth on the seedlings of cedar and other trees brought from the prefecture.

“Thank you, your majesties the Emperor and Empress,” the young attendees assembled at the ceremony said in unison.

“I would like you to continue to hold carefully the feelings of protecting and nurturing greenery,” the Emperor replied.

A senior official of the Shimane prefectural government said it was as if the Emperor had visited the prefecture in person.

A close aide to the Imperial couple said the online exchange “ended up having a realistic feeling and there was a sense of togetherness.”

The planted seedlings of the trees were to be sent to the prefecture at a later date.

Remote locations

On May 12, the Imperial couple participated in virtual visits to two schools to mark Children’s Day (May 5). One was an elementary school located at the foot of Mt. Aso in Kumamoto Prefecture and the other was an elementary and junior high school on Takeshima, a remote island accessible only by a three-hour ferry ride from Kagoshima.

“It would have taken four days to travel to both locations if the visits had been conducted in person,” the close aide said.

The Imperial couple remotely observed ICT (Information and Communication Technology) lessons at the schools. The fact that children even in rural locations have access to a high standard of education apparently left a strong impression on the Imperial couple, the aide said.

At a press conference held in February, the Emperor said, “There may be elements that one cannot expect to experience without visiting the places in person, for instance, sharing the experiences of local people and feeling the atmosphere.” However, he also said, “There is an advantage of being able to visit even remote locations in mountain areas which would otherwise be difficult to visit.”

The Imperial Household Agency had said initially that virtual visits were meant as an alternative to in-person visits amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, the agency’s grand steward Yasuhiko Nishimura said recently, “Once the COVID-19 pandemic is brought under control, it will not necessarily be the case that there will be no virtual visits,” indicating that such online activities might continue in the post-pandemic era.

The close aide said, “Even after the coronavirus pandemic ends, we would like to continue holding virtual visits that would only be possible online.”