Japan’s Imperial couple visit regional area for 1st time in almost 3 years

The Yomiuri Shimbun
The Emperor and Empress applaud during the opening ceremony of the 77th National Sports Festival in Utsunomiya on Saturday.

The Emperor and Empress attended the opening ceremony of the 77th National Sports Festival in Utsunomiya on Saturday, marking their first visit to a regional area in about 33 months due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Some other members of the Imperial family resumed full-scale duties the same day, reportedly striving to strike a balance between taking measures against the coronavirus and carrying out social and economic activities.

It was the first time in three years for the festival to be held following the outbreak of COVID-19

“I deeply appreciate the efforts of everyone who worked so hard to prepare [for the event] in difficult circumstances,” the Emperor said in his address. “I hope the festival will help you all to experience the wonder of sports, nurture friendships and create wonderful memories.”

Seated in the VIP section, the Imperial couple wore masks while watching and applauding the entrance of athletic teams from the nation’s 47 prefectures and a ceremonial performance featuring about 1,400 prefectural residents.

The festival — held at a stadium in the Tochigi prefectural capital — is one of the four major regional events usually attended by the Emperor and Empress. Since the start of the pandemic, the Imperial couple has attended the events in an online capacity, but now that the virus has been brought under control, the Imperial Household Agency deemed it possible for the couple to visit regional areas.

The Imperial couple traveled by car rather than by Shinkansen bullet train to prevent large crowds gathering at railway stations and other spots. Initially, the agency had mulled a two-day trip, but in consideration of the burden on the host city decided that the couple should make a one-day visit and skip the customary dinner with festival officials and a meeting with athletes.

The agency did not announce details of couple’s route and schedule, but even so, many locals greeted them along the road. While volunteers from the Tochigi prefectural government called for the crowd to keep their distance, people of all ages smiled and waved to the Emperor and Empress; the couple responded in kind as the car repeatedly slowed down.

The Emperor and Empress are scheduled to visit Okinawa Prefecture on Oct. 22-23 to attend the opening ceremony of the National Cultural Festival — their first overnight regional visit in three years.