National

Emperor and Empress visit Yoron Island to observe 'illusory sandbar'

Kyodo

Conducting a three-day tour to meet residents of remote islands, Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko on Friday visited Yoron Island in Kagoshima Prefecture.

The Imperial Couple, who stayed the prior night on Okinoerabu Island, traveled to Yoron to observe what is called an “illusory sandbar” in crystal clear water that only appears offshore at low tide.

After viewing the sandbar, called Yurigahama, the Emperor and Empress watched a local dance performance and then returned to Okinoerabu. They plan to watch students making raw brown sugar there Saturday.

The three-day trip stemmed from the Emperor’s desire to visit people on remote islands to listen to their voices prior to his expected abdication within the next few years.

For their first stop, the Emperor and Empress on Thursday went to Yaku Island in Kagoshima to meet people who were affected by a 2015 volcanic eruption that occurred on nearby Kuchinoerabu Island. The eruption at one point led Kuchinoerabu residents to evacuate to Yaku.

About 50 Kuchinoerabu islanders, about half the island’s population, welcomed the Imperial Couple at a town facility, displaying a banner reading, “We are hanging tough despite the eruption.”

“I am grateful that you are safe,” the Emperor told them.

The couple later met with five representatives of the volcano-hit island for half an hour.

“I am so happy they did not forget us,” a resident said. Their visit “empowers me.”

According to the Imperial Household Agency, the Emperor and Empress had planned to travel to the Amami Islands in February 2012, but the trip was postponed due to the Emperor’s poor health.

In August last year, the Emperor said in a video message that he believes it is necessary for him to have a “deep understanding of the people” in order to perform his role as a symbol of the unity of the people. In that regard, he feels that traveling throughout Japan, particularly to remote places and islands, is “important.”

In the same public address, the Emperor signaled his desire to abdicate, saying he is concerned that age and failing health could one day stop him from fulfilling his public duties.

Government sources have said the Emperor’s abdication will likely take place in March 2019, making it the first such case in two centuries.