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Braving heat and wind — but not rain or snow — superfan finds Japan's royals wherever they go

by Elaine Lies and Kwiyeon Ha

Reuters

Wherever Japan’s imperials go, there too goes Fumiko Shirataki: in summer heat and winter cold, to the ocean and to the mountains.

Except when it snows or rains too hard.

“You can’t get good pictures then — and if the camera lens gets wet, it might get damaged. I really worry about that,” said Shirataki, 78, who has spent the last 26 years following and photographing Emperor Akihito, Empress Michiko and especially Crown Princess Masako.

“As soon as I know their plans I’ll be there — though it’s hard if I only find out the night before,” she added.

Imperial aficionado Fumiko Shirataki, 78, is seen through the window of the car transporting Emperor Akihito at Kodomonokuni in Yokohama on April 12.
Imperial aficionado Fumiko Shirataki, 78, is seen through the window of the car transporting Emperor Akihito at Kodomonokuni in Yokohama on April 12. | REUTERS

Shirataki’s passion for okkake, as the pursuit is known in Japan, began in 1993, when she followed then-Masako Owada after her engagement to Crown Prince Naruhito but couldn’t get good photos.

“I wasn’t used to carrying such a heavy camera, so I’d shoot the tire, or the back seat, or the driver,” Shirataki said in the kitchen of her home in Kawasaki, decorated with a photo of Crown Princess Masako and an imperial family calendar.

But now she has honed her skills, and her house is filled with a huge number of photos.

“Uncountable,” she said. “After all, it’s been 26 years.”

Imperial aficionado Fumiko Shirataki, 78, and her friends rush to secure their photo position before the arrival of Crown Prince Naruhito, his wife, Crown Princess Masako, and their daughter, Princess Aiko, at Tokyo Station on March 25.
Imperial aficionado Fumiko Shirataki, 78, and her friends rush to secure their photo position before the arrival of Crown Prince Naruhito, his wife, Crown Princess Masako, and their daughter, Princess Aiko, at Tokyo Station on March 25. | REUTERS

Shirataki won’t reveal how she and her fan friends figure out the imperial schedules. But once she has the details, she loads a backpack, takes a collapsible chair and a rice ball to eat, and heads out.

“They know our faces by now, so when we raise the cameras I guess they think ‘here they are’ and they face toward us and wave,” said Shirataki, who always wears sneakers and pants for ease of movement while she’s on the hunt.

Shirataki and her fellow chasers, nearly all of whom are female, say their main focus is the imperial women and their clothes. Because of time constraints — she works part time at a car dealership — she concentrates on the empress and empress-to-be.

Imperial aficionado Fumiko Shirataki, 78, displays her collection of photographs of imperial family members at her home in Kawasaki on Feb. 21.
Imperial aficionado Fumiko Shirataki, 78, displays her collection of photographs of imperial family members at her home in Kawasaki on Feb. 21. | REUTERS

“When my husband was still alive and earning, I’d spend five or six days a week at this, but now I have to work,” she said. The photo in the Buddhist altar for her husband, who died two years ago, is smaller than a picture of Crown Princess Masako displayed nearby.

Though she’s cagey about how much her hobby costs, she spends at least ¥50,000 ($447) annually just on photos.

Shirataki says Crown Princess Masako is her favorite and has even appeared in her dreams. But Shirataki worries how she will fare as empress after the stress-related illness that kept her out of the public eye for many years.

“There could be a lot of times where Masako won’t go with the emperor,” she said. “If it’s just him, we won’t go. Her alone? Yes.”

Imperial aficionado Fumiko Shirataki, 78, shakes hands with Empress Michiko near an imperial villa where Emperor Akihito and the empress are staying for their recuperation in Hayama, Kanagawa Prefecture, on Jan. 21.
Imperial aficionado Fumiko Shirataki, 78, shakes hands with Empress Michiko near an imperial villa where Emperor Akihito and the empress are staying for their recuperation in Hayama, Kanagawa Prefecture, on Jan. 21. | REUTERS

Shirataki may already have reached the pinnacle of okkake success: This year, she shook hands with the empress.

“I’ve talked with them briefly before but that’s the only time I’d ever been able to put out my hand. … I didn’t realize I would do it,” Shirataki said.

“When I asked, she just said, in a small voice, ‘If my hand is OK,’ ” she added. “And then I did.”