When Emperor Naruhito attended a nationally televised ceremony this past weekend to commemorate the 75th anniversary of Japan’s surrender in World War II, it was practically his first major public appearance in six months — and possibly his last this year.

The pandemic has forced the cancellation of ceremonies, parties and international trips that otherwise would have raised the profile of the nation’s emperor, who took the helm of the world’s oldest continuous monarchy last year. Instead, his absence from the public spotlight has created an impression of him fading from view, prompting many to wonder, “Where is the emperor?”

COVID-19 presents the question of how the emperor can live up to his constitutionally defined role as the “symbol” of the people when circumstances prevent him from adhering to the precedents set by former Emperor Akihito, his tremendously popular father.