National

Emperor Naruhito upholds tradition and searches for role in first year of reign

Kyodo

Emperor Naruhito on Friday marked one year since he ascended to the chrysanthemum throne, with him and Empress Masako searching for their role in modern times while continuing his parents’ efforts to heal the wounds of war and disasters.

The past year has been full of celebrations and ceremonies associated with his enthronement, which marked the start of the new Reiwa imperial era, although in recent months the imperial couple have been forced to stay out of the public eye due to the new coronavirus epidemic.

After former Emperor Akihito, 86, abdicated on April 30 last year, the first Japanese monarch to step down in about 200 years, Emperor Naruhito ascended to the throne the next day, inheriting the imperial regalia of mirror, sword and jewel as well as seals.

The 60-year-old emperor pledged at the time to fulfill his role as “the symbol of the state and of the unity of the people of Japan,” as stated in the Constitution, while “always turning my thoughts to the people and standing with them.”

He has visited a number of Japanese cities and taken part in events since then, including a ceremony to mark 74 years since Japan’s surrender in World War II at which he expressed “deep remorse,” repeating the expression used by his father every year since 2015 in a clear sign he intends to follow in his father’s footsteps.

The emperor and empress extended their sympathies to the victims of Typhoon Hagibis, which hit wide areas of Japan in October and encouraged those severely affected in Fukushima and Miyagi prefectures in December.

When meeting with the typhoon victims, the imperial couple often bent down and looked into their eyes, a style established by former Emperor Akihito and former Empress Michiko.

The Sokuirei Seiden no Gi ceremony on Oct. 22 was a highlight of the enthronement events, at which he formally proclaimed himself to be the emperor before 2,000 guests, including some 420 dignitaries from about 190 countries and international organizations.

The ceremony, equivalent to a coronation, and the court banquet held after the rite brought under the spotlight the new imperial diplomacy of the couple. The emperor is the first Japanese monarch to have studied abroad and the empress is a Harvard- and Oxford-educated former diplomat.

The series of events also highlighted the remarkable recovery of the empress, 56, who has long suffered from stress-related illness, as she greeted guests including U.S. President Donald Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron.

“She has completed a number of rites and events in the past year and the confidence that came with them has enabled her to perform the next,” said a close aide.

When she was crown princess, she was largely absent from public events due to her illness, but the empress has managed to participate in all the scheduled events since last May, including the elaborate Daijosai, a Shinto thanksgiving ceremony.

On Nov. 14 and 15, Emperor Naruhito made offerings to ancestral deities and prayed for the peace and prosperity of Japan and its people in buildings constructed solely for the ritual and taken apart soon afterward.

After all the enthronement rites were completed in December, the emperor thanked people for their support, saying at a news conference ahead of his 60th birthday on Feb. 23, “One of the most memorable moments in the last 10 months was being given heartfelt congratulations by many people.”

He also said he would like to explore new activities in responding to social changes.

The emperor was initially scheduled to greet the public at the Imperial Palace to celebrate his birthday, but the event was canceled for the first time since 1996 amid concerns over the coronavirus spreading in Japan.

The imperial couple have been receiving updates on the virus crisis from medical experts, including a private lecture at the palace on April 10 by Shigeru Omi, a member of a government panel discussing the response to the outbreak.

“I sincerely hope that people will further come together and join their forces in overcoming the difficult situation,” the emperor said before the lecture, a speech disclosed by the Imperial Household Agency in a rare move. An aide to the emperor said it was intended as a message to the public.

The couple’s first overseas trip after his enthronement, scheduled for Britain in May, has been cancelled due to the pandemic, while a ceremony scheduled for April 19 to formally announce Crown Prince Akishino, 54, the emperor’s younger brother, as first in line to the throne has also been postponed.

Shingo Haketa, a former chief of the Imperial Household Agency, said the past year has probably been “a year of searching by (the emperor) for how a symbol (of the state) should be, based on the needs of the times and his own thoughts.”

“It is a never-ending challenge to find what role a symbolic emperor should play and what specifically he should do in the changing times,” Haketa said.

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