Agency looks to revive regional visits by Emperor, Empress

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
The Emperor and Empress wave to people gathered at Ujiyamada Station in Ise, Mie Prefecture, on Nov. 23, 2019.

With the Emperor and Empress unable to visit regional areas for more than 2½ years due to the pandemic, the Imperial Household Agency is closely monitoring various events, including J-League soccer matches, to help devise measures to prevent infection and allow the couple to resume their trips.

Regional visits by the Imperial couple and sporting events often involve similar conditions — people are densely packed together and there is a great deal of cheering.

Concerns over infection

Imperial family members including Crown Prince Akishino and Crown Princess Kiko have resumed their visits to regional areas since the spread of infections subsided in spring. The Emperor and Empress have attended some events in Tokyo, but they have not been able to visit regional areas. Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures were the last places they went, in December 2019, outside the Tokyo metropolitan area.

The agency considered having the Imperial couple go to Shiga Prefecture for the National Tree Planting Festival in June, but gave up the idea because of concerns that the visit would lead to the spread of infections in the area.

The agency is not worried about the risk of infection for the Emperor and Empress, as they can ensure a certain distance between them and the people they meet. The concern is about the coronavirus possibly spreading among people who gather at train stations and along the streets to welcome the Imperial couple.

The number of people who welcome the Emperor and Empress is “vastly larger than that for other members of the Imperial family,” according to a senior official of the agency.

If such people are asked to refrain from welcoming the Imperial couple along roads, it could diminish the significance of their visit to regional areas, where they are expected to be in contact with many people.

“We need scientific evidence that cheering in large crowds does not lead to the spread of infection,” a senior official of the agency said.

Cheering out loud

The J-League started testing the safety of vocal cheering in June, an endeavor that caught the attention of the Emperor and Empress’ staff. The league has set up seats in some stadiums where spectators are allowed to cheer out loud for the players on the condition that they wear nonwoven masks.

As long as spectators face forward and wear nonwoven masks, there is almost no difference in the risk of infection between people cheering out loud and those who do not, according to an analysis by the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST).

“Soccer spectators all face the same direction, so there’s little chance that droplets will spray onto other people’s faces,” said Tetsuo Yasutaka, the head of an AIST research group. “If all the people along a street also wear nonwoven masks while turned toward the Emperor and Empress, the risk of infection should not increase.”

The next opportunities for a possible regional visit by the Emperor and Empress are Tochigi Prefecture in early October, where an event for the National Sports Festival will be held, and Okinawa Prefecture in late October to attend the National Cultural Festival.

An on-site survey will be conducted in August, two months prior to the events, and the agency and prefectural governments are closely monitoring the infection situation and making adjustments.

“We will consider countermeasures, such as asking people along the route to wear masks and keep a safe distance from one another,” a Tochigi prefectural government official said.

The duties of a symbol

The agency’s positive attitude toward resuming the Imperial couple’s regional visits stems only partly from the government policy of balancing infection control measures and socioeconomic activities. It is also based on the Emperor’s belief that it is important for the Emperor and Empress to be in direct contact with the public, to fulfill their duty as symbols of the state to “share the sufferings and joys of the people.”

During the years of the pandemic, the Emperor and Empress have interacted online with people in various regions.

While online communication has the advantage of enabling contact with people in mountainous areas and remote islands that are difficult to reach, the number of people who can participate is limited and the depth of the interaction is not as great as that of in-person communication.

“Emperors and empresses have deepened their interaction by greeting many people along the roads and elsewhere,” said Hideya Kawanishi, an associate professor of modern Japanese history at Nagoya University. “The pandemic has made it difficult for the public to see the activities of the Emperor, who is a symbolic figure. It is necessary for them to resume their visits to regional areas, so as to draw attention to the Imperial family.”

Other members of the Imperial family have resumed overnight visits to regional areas since this spring.

Crown Prince Akishino and Crown Princess Kiko visited Mie, Nara and Kyoto prefectures when they visited Ise Shrine in April. Since then, they have also attended events in Gifu, Tochigi, and Hiroshima prefectures.

The agency has avoided having them use terminal stations with many passengers so that people do not crowd together, and has conducted PCR tests on accompanying staff members.

Princess Nobuko and Princess Akiko of Mikasa have visited Fukuoka Prefecture and Hokkaido to attend events.