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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.

During his 30-year reign, Akihito famously carved out a new interpretation of the vaguely worded concept of a “symbolic” emperor.

The now-emperor emeritus sought to personify this role by taking an unprecedentedly intimate approach to the people. For example, he and his wife, Empress Emerita Michiko, frequently visited disaster evacuees in person and comforted them on the same eye level, sometimes even kneeling down.

But the need for social distancing has made it near impossible for the current emperor to do anything that risks attracting a large crowd. With his father’s playbook now unavailable, some observers say it’s high time the imperial family made forays into social media — one of the few avenues they say will allow Emperor Naruhito to both differentiate himself from his father and maintain his visibility during the pandemic.

“It must be very frustrating for him,” said Kenneth Ruoff, a professor of modern Japanese history at Portland State University and author of the book “Japan’s Imperial House in the Postwar Era, 1945-2019.”

“He was planning on continuing the same style of his parents: getting out there and mixing in a very as-equal-as-possible way with his countrymen. And then the pandemic comes along, and they can’t really do that for all sorts of reasons.”

Becoming invisible?

Before the Aug. 15 war memorial, Naruhito last emerged from his cloistered palace and imperial estate for an event on Feb. 14, when he visited an art exhibition at the Tokyo Dome.

But since then, the spread of the novel coronavirus has stripped his calendar of events that would have offered major publicity opportunities, including the Tokyo Games, a state visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping and the emperor’s scheduled trip to the United Kingdom.

Annual regional trips to events such as tree planting ceremonies and sports festivals have all been called off, too. The view now increasingly prevails that the recent war memorial marked the emperor’s final attendance of a public ceremony this year.

On Tuesday, the Imperial Household Agency reportedly decided that it will cancel the imperial family’s annual vacation to their villa in the town of Nasu, Tochigi Prefecture, citing concerns that their appearance may draw a throng of onlookers.

Apparently alarmed by his dwindling presence, the agency has taken the highly rare step of uploading the full text of a short speech made by the emperor in April, when he and Empress Masako were briefed by Shigeru Omi, head of a government panel of experts dealing with the pandemic, on the latest situation regarding the coronavirus.

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak uploaded on Twitter a selfie he took with Emperor Naruhito during a lunch session at his official residence in April 2017. | KYODO
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak uploaded on Twitter a selfie he took with Emperor Naruhito during a lunch session at his official residence in April 2017. | KYODO

There, the emperor thanked Omi for his “tireless” effort in fighting COVID-19, describing the virus as an “enormous challenge for humankind” and expressing hopes that the people would “unite as one” and “surmount this very difficult situation.”

Such briefings are typically private in nature and it is “unheard of” for the agency to fully disclose the emperor’s remarks on these occasions, said Shinji Yamashita, a former Imperial Household Agency official turned freelance journalist who extensively covers the imperial family.

Behind this break with tradition was the agency’s desire to quell growing frustration from the public and media over the lack of an address by Emperor Naruhito to his people at a time when Japan is grappling with what some say is a national crisis, Yamashita suggested.

“There’s a growing concern that the emperor is becoming ‘invisible’ now,” he said.

What are ostensibly presented as the emperor’s words of gratitude for Omi, then, should actually be taken to be his message to the entire nation, Yamashita said.

Oblique communication

The roundabout way Emperor Naruhito delivered his message on the pandemic, however, raises the question of why he didn’t just speak to the people directly.

His reticence has contrasted sharply with the great lengths to which kings and queens overseas, especially those in Europe, went in the early days of the pandemic to communicate with the public, issuing an array of video messages seeking to allay their fears.

Those include British Queen Elizabeth II, King Harald V of Norway, Queen Margrethe II of Denmark and Spain’s King Felipe VI.

The difference in attitudes partly stems from the unique role and authority assigned to emperors, who are stripped of political power under the postwar Constitution as the antithesis of their godlike status during the war, which symbolized Imperial Japan’s militarism. As such, they cannot say anything that is even remotely political in public today, with their words often strictly vetted and scripted in advance.

Such is the weight of words of emperors that their direct addresses to the nation are, as a rule, reserved only for very special moments, observers say.

Only twice during his 30-year reign did Akihito, for example, broadcast video messages — first in the aftermath of the March 2011 triple disasters that decimated the Tohoku region, and then in August 2016 when he made nuanced explanations about why he wanted to abdicate instead of reigning until death.

Although COVID-19 has taken a heavy toll on the lives of many in Japan, the situation here is nowhere near as catastrophic as in some of the world’s biggest virus hot spots, with a death toll totaling a bit over 1,000 as of Tuesday.

Emperor Naruhito and Empress Masako hear from business leaders on July 27. | COURTESY OF THE IMPERIAL HOUSEHOLD AGENCY / VIA KYODO
Emperor Naruhito and Empress Masako hear from business leaders on July 27. | COURTESY OF THE IMPERIAL HOUSEHOLD AGENCY / VIA KYODO

“If Japan ever gets as bad as, say, New York, then I think it’s certainly possible that the emperor would make a video speech,” Yamashita said. “But right now, with the nation still persevering and succeeding at containing the crisis under government policies, I would find the release of a video message a little premature,” he added.

That view is echoed by Ruoff, who said the fact that Emperor Naruhito had so far steered clear of making any special announcement doesn’t make him any more aloof than his father.

Given the significant constitutional constraints on the monarch, which set him and his family apart from, for example, their more outspoken counterparts in the U.K., it makes sense that “the Japanese royals are much more careful about what they say in public,” Ruoff said.

“So I think he’s been less active compared to other monarchs, but he hasn’t been less active than you would have expected his father to be in similar circumstances.”

According to Ruoff, the Imperial Household Agency did consider having the emperor make a televised statement in April when it looked like Japan was tipping toward a full-blown crisis, with the number of cases spiking. But momentum for such an arrangement fizzled out after the nation gradually flattened the curve in the weeks that followed, he said.

‘Now or never’

While the plan to broadcast a statement is apparently on hold for now, calls are growing for the imperial household to emulate royal families abroad in making a social media debut.

On its official Instagram account, the British royal family, for example, has posted short clips showing the queen engaging in Zoom meetings with military personnel and government officials.

Naotaka Kimizuka, a professor at Kanto Gakuin University who is well-versed in royal families around the world, has said such an open embrace of internet culture by the monarchy still remains implausible in Japan, describing a cadre of conservative forces in the Imperial Household Agency reluctant to experiment with anything unprecedented.

Kimizuka said royal families overseas have utilized platforms such as Twitter and YouTube to roll out aggressive public-relations campaigns to “make the people understand their kings and queens are working hard” to get their nations through the pandemic.

“Social media is the only way that Emperor Naruhito can get close to the people and take that closeness a step further than his parents,” Kimizuka said.

“Not to mention, social media is a perfect match for the era of COVID-19, where he can’t go out and have face-to-face communication with the public. If that’s not a perfect tool, I don’t know what is.”

While officials around him may balk at the notion of the emperor making forays into social media, there is a good chance that Emperor Naruhito himself is more open-minded.

During his trip to Denmark as prince in 2017, he surprised his entourage by agreeing with a smile to taking a selfie with a local resident who had asked for a photo. That was only a few months after former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak proudly uploaded on Twitter and Facebook a blurry, apparently spur-of-the-moment selfie he took with the emperor during lunch at his official residence.

Queen Elizabeth II is seen during a televised address to the nation in London on April 5. | REUTERS
Queen Elizabeth II is seen during a televised address to the nation in London on April 5. | REUTERS

“Given his personality and ways of thinking, I do believe the emperor himself is of the opinion that social media should be utilized,” Yamashita said.

The journalist said that before the pandemic, he would have thought it would take Japan another five to 10 years before the imperial family started to use social media.

“But with the use of the internet rapidly spreading due to the coronavirus crisis, and the emperor increasingly seen as invisible and disengaged from the public, I think a social media debut is now or never,” he said.

While conceding its positive aspects, Ruoff, meanwhile, cautions that the internet can be a double-edged sword that, if mismanaged, could have dire consequences.

“All sorts of things can happen with social media. … You want the emperor to tweet, and do you want them being retweeted?” he asked.

“You don’t want the throne caught up in social media in a way that harms its dignity.”

One thing that’s clear among observers is that the imperial family’s use of social media, even if it were realized, would never resemble the seemingly untrammeled, whimsical unleashing of tweets by U.S. President Donald Trump. Whatever message the monarchy wishes to communicate will in all likelihood be tightly scrutinized, controlled and scripted by the Imperial Household Agency.

“There’s no way that he is going to be allowed to just write a tweet. I mean, it has to be approved,” Ruoff said.

“It’s never going to be something like Trump, sending off whatever comes to his mind.”

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