Okinawa people share memories of Emperor, Empress ahead of their first visit in current roles

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
The then crown prince and crown princess, now the Emperor and Empress, visit the Cornerstone of Peace in Itoman, Okinawa Prefecture, in July 1997.

The Emperor and Empress will visit Okinawa Prefecture this weekend for the National Cultural Festival and other events, in their first visit to the prefecture since the Emperor’s enthronement.

The couple have always felt close to the Okinawans as they continue learning about their hardships and culture. People there are looking forward to their upcoming visit on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the prefecture’s return to Japan.

‘Still issues’ in Okinawa

“There are still various issues in Okinawa,” the Emperor said at a May 15 ceremony marking the anniversary.

It was the third time an emperor delivered words at a ceremony related to the Okinawa reversion, following Emperor Showa at the reversion ceremony in 1972 and the now Emperor Emeritus at the 20th anniversary ceremony in 1992. But it was the first time that an emperor mentioned the issues facing Okinawa.

The Emperor did not specify what the issues are, but former prefectural official Masaaki Aguni, 79, immediately took it to mean matters involving U.S. military bases.

“Given the political constraints, I was very grateful that the Emperor made a statement that resonated with the people in Okinawa,” he said.

Aguni said he would never forget the day in July 1997 when he guided the Emperor and Empress — who were then the crown prince and crown princess — at the Cornerstone of Peace, where the names of the war dead are inscribed, in the Mabuni district of Itoman City.

“Members of this family all died,” and “This child died before they were even named,” Aguni explained as he pointed out parts of the inscriptions on the stone walls. Bending down, the couple sadly gazed at a line that simply recorded a “child of” a certain person.

The sky was clear and the sea was an outstanding blue. The Empress composed a waka poem about the scene for the New Year’s Poetry Reading in 1999.

Looking down

from the peace monument

on the hill of Mabuni,

I see the serene sea,

bluer than the sky.

The Cornerstone of Peace is designed in the shape of a series of folding screens evoking the “waves of peace.”

“The Empress must have put a wish in her poem that a wave of peace would spread across the world,” Aguni said.

Toasting with awamori

Prior to the upcoming visit, the Emperor and Empress invited University of the Ryukyus Prof. Emeritus Kurayoshi Takara, 75, to the Imperial Palace on Tuesday evening to give them a briefing on Okinawa’s history and cultural revival.

The discussion touched on maritime trade during the era of the Ryukyu Kingdom. The Emperor, who is an expert on the history of water transportation, asked Takara, “How have boat-building techniques been passed down?” The Emperor nodded and took notes as he was told that the techniques were no longer taught.

In September 1987, when the Emperor visited Okinawa for the first time, Takara was invited along with several young researchers to the Emperor’s accommodation where they chatted over a glass of awamori liquor.

Takara amusingly told a story of a young woman who headed a smuggling group in Okinawa that was riding high during the chaotic postwar period, and who kept a machine gun slung at her waist. The Emperor laughed aloud, saying “Was that so?”

Takara recalled, “I could see that the Emperor, by talking frankly with the people of Okinawa, wanted to learn and absorb more about Okinawa.”

Passed on to Princess Aiko

Since he was 5 years old, the Emperor, along with his parents, has interacted with “mame kisha” child reporters, who are elementary and junior high school students sent from Okinawa to other parts of Japan to experience journalism work.

Kazuaki Yamamoto, 92, a former teacher who led the mame kisha for many years, was once asked by the Empress Emerita if there were “any good books about Okinawa for Naru-chan,” as she called the Emperor. Yamamoto sent her several books.

Ahead of the 50th anniversary ceremony, the Emperor lent his daughter, Princess Aiko, 20, a book he received from the child reporters when he was an elementary school student. It is a children’s book, but the Emperor thought adults can learn a lot from it, too.

Courtesy of Kazuaki Yamamoto
The Emperor, in his junior high school days, receives a doll of a Ryukyuan dancer from child reporters from Okinawa Prefecture in August 1972 in Karuizawa, Nagano Prefecture.

The Imperial family’s love for Okinawa is being passed on to the next generation.

“In the past, there were quite a few people in the prefecture who had mixed feelings about the Imperial family, but now there are many people who feel close to the family,” Takara said. “In this new era of Reiwa, the Emperor’s friendly interaction with the people of the prefecture is of great significance.”