Emperor Akihito defines role as state symbol through 30 yrs of reign
TOKYO, Kyodo - Emperor Akihito, who on Tuesday will become the first Japanese monarch to abdicate in about two centuries, has devoted the 30 years of his reign to defining his role as “symbol of the state,” a new status without political power created under the postwar Japanese Constitution.
The 85-year-old emperor's visits to console those affected by natural disasters and survivors of World War II as well as his years of warm personal exchanges with marginalized people, such as patients of leprosy and other diseases marked a major shift from precedents set by his predecessors.
His personal interactions were seen as a symbolic move by the emperor to heal the scars of people who have suffered and bring closure to Japan's past, observers say.
“I have considered it the first and foremost duty of the emperor to pray for peace and the happiness of all the people,” the emperor said in the speech in August 2016 when he publicly indicated his wish to step down for the first time.
“At the same time, I also believe that in some cases it is essential to stand by the people, listen to their voices, and be close to them in their thoughts,” he added.
In July 1991, just over two years after the emperor ascended the Chrysanthemum Throne, the imperial couple startled the public when they kneeled down to speak to people affected by a massive volcanic eruption in Nagasaki Prefecture in southwestern Japan.
Emperors in Japan, once considered divine, have not always had such personal interactions in the past, and kneeling down to talk with members of the public was not the norm.
Both Nagasaki's then governor, the late Isamu Takada, and former Shimabara Mayor Kanichi Kanegae said they were “surprised” by the action.
Looking back, a close aide to the couple said the visit to Shimabara marked a moment when the emperor “began walking the path of being a symbol” of the state.
Since then, the emperor and the empress have made at least two rounds of visits to each of Japan's 47 prefectures, often meeting people hit by major natural disasters.
In January 1995, the couple went to Hyogo Prefecture to encourage people affected by the Great Hanshin Earthquake in western Japan.
In November 2004, they went to Niigata Prefecture shortly after a powerful earthquake rocked the region, and traveled to northeastern Japan areas devastated by a massive earthquake and tsunami in March 2011 that also triggered a nuclear crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant.
Their visits continued even in the final year of the emperor's reign, as they sought to comfort people struck by torrential rains in Hiroshima, Okayama and Ehime prefectures in western Japan.
But perhaps more symbolic was the imperial couple's gesture of bowing at a seaside cliff in Saipan in 2005, 60 years after World War II ended.
During the war fought under the name of the emperor's father Emperor Hirohito, many Japanese soldiers and citizens jumped to their deaths from the cliff rather than surrender to American soldiers.
The emperor, who was 11 when Japan was defeated in the war, is said to have deepened his wish for peace after seeing the capital flattened by U.S. air raids.
In 1995, the couple made a tour of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which were devastated by U.S. atomic bombs in 1945, as well as Okinawa, one of the bloodiest battlefields of the war.
Their journeys to heal the wounds of war extended overseas. In addition to the visit to Saipan in 2005, they made a trip to Palau in 2015 on the 70th anniversary of the end of the war and another visit to the Philippines the following year to pray for all war dead, regardless of nationality.
During his 30 years on the throne, the emperor along with the empress visited a total of 36 countries, and became the first Japanese emperor to travel to China. (Kyodo)