Emperor Akihito has devoted his 30 years on the throne to defining his role as “symbol of the state,” a new status created under the postwar Constitution.
After 30 years, the 85-year-old Emperor’s time on the throne is drawing to a close as he is scheduled to abdicate in April, fulfilling his initial desire to step down, which was made public in August 2016. During his three decades on the throne, his warm personal exchanges with former leprosy patients, those with Minamata disease and disabled individuals represent a major shift away from precedents set by his predecessors. Observers see his interactions as symbolic of the Emperor taking responsibility for Japan’s historical discrimination against this particular demographic.
On Oct. 4, 2004, a high-speed boat carrying the Emperor and the Empress from Shodo Island back to Takamatsu, the capital of Kagawa Prefecture, stopped at a small island in the Seto Inland Sea to allow the couple to take a moment to wave at residents of a leprosy sanatorium.
Lining up on a pier, the residents of the state-run Seishoen sanatorium on Oshima Island were able to see the Imperial Couple, who could not visit the facility itself as large vessels are unable to dock at the island.
The Emperor and Empress had met some residents of the sanatorium in central Takamatsu two days earlier, but only a small group was able to take part in the session as many of the residents were too old to travel.
The brief stop was arranged by the Ehime prefectural government and the Imperial Household Agency in response to the Imperial Couple’s wish to interact with the sanatorium’s other members.
In 1907, the central government adopted an “isolation policy” that forced leprosy patients to live in sequestered facilities across the country. This policy lasted until 1996 when the anti-leprosy law was abolished.
At the policy’s peak in the 1950s, the government sent over 11,000 people to national sanatoriums.
As of 2014, the couple has visited all 14 of Japan’s leprosy sanatoriums; their visits have taken place since their days as Crown Prince and Princess over the course of around half a century. Oshima Seishoen was the only facility they could not enter.
During the Takamatsu visit, the two listened to each individual resident and continued chatting with them beyond the allotted time, said 82-year-old Hiroshi Nomura, who took part in the meeting.
“I still cannot forget that when they were about to leave. Empress Michiko said, ‘Oh, it was so much fun,'” Nomura said.
The couple’s welfare visits to children, the elderly and others — which total over 500 — reflect the Emperor’s opinion that he “should not just think about the people in an abstract manner, but relate to each person who is in a vulnerable position,” according to Shingo Haketa, 76, former chief of the Imperial Household Agency.
Those with Minamata disease at a welfare facility in Kumamoto Prefecture also recalled their meeting with the Emperor and Empress on Oct. 27, 2013, arranged in response to the Imperial Couple’s wish to visit those affected.
The disease has been traced to mercury-tainted water fertilizer-maker Shin-Nippon Chisso Hiryo K.K., now Chisso Corp., dumped into Minamata Bay in the 1950s and 1960s.
Locals who consumed contaminated seafood developed paralysis in the hands and feet as well as a loss of sight. A number of infants were also born with birth defects after expectant mothers unknowingly ate tainted food.
Roughly 1,800 people in Kumamoto Prefecture and 500 people in Kagoshima Prefecture have been diagnosed with Minamata disease. Of these individuals, about 350 are still alive and are an average of 78 years or older.
Yuji Kaneko, 63, and Kiyoko Kagata, 63, along with the head of the welfare facility Takeko Kato, met with the couple.
On the previous day, Kato was told that despite their tight schedule, the two wanted to meet individuals who have lived with Minamata disease since birth. The couple was visiting Kumamoto to attend a convention on marine environment and resource management.
With the help of Kato, Kaneko, whose speech is impaired due to the disease, told the Imperial Couple that his father died of Minamata disease before he was born. The Empress expressed her sympathies, saying, “Your mother must have faced hardships on her own, then.”
“I felt that they were trying to face the pain of patients, who have been tossed about by the state, as individual human beings,” said Kato.
Emperors in Japan, once considered divine figures, have not always had such personal interactions with the general populace; kneeling down to talk with members of the public was not the norm.
In 1991, the couple did just that, startling the public when they knelt down to speak to people affected by a massive volcanic eruption in Nagasaki Prefecture.
The couple was actually continuing a practice they had started as Crown Prince and Princess, but some had assumed they would not continue it as Emperor and Empress.
Back in November 1986, the couple knelt while visiting a Tokyo evacuation center housing those who had fled the island of Izu Oshima after a volcanic eruption. Evacuees were seated on mattresses during the visit.
“I thought that this must be how a crown prince behaves,” said Haruo Koike, 80, who was there at the time.
A person who witnessed the couple listening to Koike’s account of his evacuation said they appeared to be trying to keep their eyes at the same level as him and others they spoke to.
At a news conference in November 1999, the Emperor shared that he considers it an important duty of his and the Empress’s to connect with the disabled, elderly, those affected by disasters and people dedicating themselves to others or society. “It is with such a thought that we visit welfare facilities and disaster areas. … What we have tried to do as much as possible is to share our hearts with the people we meet at the facilities and disaster areas we visit,” he said.