The Yomiuri Shimbun On May 1, the Emperor became the 126th to ascend the Chrysanthemum Throne. We hear testimonies of those who are aware of the steps leading to his enthronement that enable us to create a portrait of the Emperor, who epitomizes the representation of the modern Imperial family. This is the first installment in the series “New Emperor, New Era.”
In June 2018, the Emperor greeted the alumni association of Gakushuin University in Tokyo, his alma mater, with the words: “While this is the time when all of you are starting to retire from the forefront of society, I am about to make my debut.”
One of his past classmates sensed in the Emperor’s calm tone his resolution about the heavy responsibility that he will carry.
In a New Year’s greeting card sent to the Emperor this year, his classmate added the lines, “I’m looking forward to a new era with you as the representative of our generation.”
A postcard sent in reply said, “Thank you for all your sentiments.”
Even with his enthronement soon to take place, a sense of urgency could not be found in the words on the postcard.
The Emperor ascended the throne at the age of 59. He is the second oldest emperor to be enthroned since the second half of the eighth century, among those whose birth months are certain. Yet, his time as crown prince during his middle-age years was spent cultivating the beginnings of what are now his new public duties.
A video lecture by the Emperor was screened on April 16 in Tokyo. Ambassadors and other representatives from 67 countries gathered to watch the video, which detailed the history of flood damage in Japan and abroad, a topic that the Emperor has been researching, and sought out solutions to the problem.
Hungarian Ambassador Norbert Palanovics was surprised at the depth of the Emperor’s knowledge. Once every 10 years, Hungary is afflicted by the flooding of tributaries to the Danube. Palanovics respects the Emperor as a leading expert on water-related issues and he is paying close attention to the Emperor’s prowess to make these issues understood.
The third World Water Forum, an international forum held in 2003 in which concerned parties from around the world gathered in Kyoto with the aim of solving water issues, was an opportunity for the Emperor to deepen his insight in the field, for which he has gained international attention.
The Emperor studied the history of water transportation in the Middle Ages during his student years. He was appointed honorary president of the forum and presented a lecture on the history of Lake Biwa and the Yodogawa river. At a branch meeting he personally attended, he was reminded of the existence of people who suffer health problems due to unsanitary water supplies and those who are forced to fetch water. In subsequent lectures, the Emperor showed photographs taken during his visit to Nepal showing women and children lining up at places where they go to fetch water, while speaking about his hopes for solving water problems, which have a serious impact on issues such as human rights, education, sanitation, and flooding.
For about eight years from 2007, the Emperor assumed the honorary presidency of the United Nations Secretary General’s Advisory Board on Water and Sanitation. In 2013, he delivered an address at the U.N. headquarters, an unprecedented move as a member of the Imperial family.
His address at the United Nations, which is a place for political bargaining, was debated by the Imperial Household Agency and the Foreign Ministry in terms of whether it might represent political engagement by a member of the Imperial family. An official related to the matter revealed that “it took two years to get a green light on the issue. It was concluded that there is no political problem in talking about water, a theme that is common to all humanity.”
The Emperor’s speeches on water issues, including video messages, have been delivered on 11 occasions in eight countries. Former U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon has expressed his praise and deep appreciation for the Emperor’s outstanding achievements for the development of water and sanitation around the world.
Emperor’s passion for water disaster prevention studies
On June 4, 2011, three months after the Great East Japan Earthquake, the Emperor was overwhelmed by what came into view as the plane he was on descended to land at Sendai Airport. Breakwaters had been destroyed. Rows of pine trees had been completely uprooted. Vacant land sat where homes used to exist.
“There truly was nothing left. Seeing that reminded me of how powerful water can be.” Following the disaster, the Emperor’s first destination to an affected area was Miyagi Prefecture.
After returning to Tokyo, he shared his reflections on this experience about the danger posed by tsunami with his music friend Toshio Shiraishi.
When the Emperor Emeritus was crown prince, he witnessed areas devastated by fire during World War II. He would later devote himself to consoling war victims. “Perhaps what he saw in the tsunami-affected area led the Emperor to begin his current work,” says Shiraishi.
The Emperor Emeritus consistently visited disaster-affected areas and consoled the victims with his knees on the ground, expressing sympathy for their sorrows.
At the Sokui-go-Choken-no-gi ceremony on May 1, the Emperor vowed to follow his father’s example by “always turning my thoughts to the people and standing with them.” While continuing this hallmark of the Heisei era, the Emperor will also deal with disasters from the perspective of a researcher on water-related issues.
This has already been illustrated by his work on preventing and mitigating damage from natural disasters.
In a video address to the U.N. water conference in 2017, the Emperor introduced the Koryaku no Hi monument in Minami, Tokushima Prefecture.
An inscribed stone monument was erected in the wake of earthquakes and tsunami, and is believed to be the oldest of its kind in Japan. The monument memorializes the victims of the Shohei Nankai earthquake in 1361.
The Emperor highlighted the significance of such memorials, saying they contribute to “preparing for big disasters in the future.”
Visiting the site last June, the Emperor touched it and guided his fingers over the inscribed characters, and learned how it has been used for disaster prevention education.
“Since the Emperor’s visit, local children have also begun to touch it for themselves, making the feeling of a major tsunami in the past more familiar,” said local historian Katsutoshi Sakai, who guided the Emperor that day.
The Emperor has dealt with water issues from various perspectives. His activities include helping in the filling of sandbags during a flood prevention drill in a riverside area and venturing deep underground to tour floodways that were built in case of heavy rainfall.
On his visits to Switzerland and Malaysia, he inspected local flood prevention measures.
At his final birthday press conference as crown prince in February, he expressed his intent, saying, “I hope to tap my knowledge that I gained through my work on water issues while considering the importance of disaster prevention and mitigation.”
Together with the Empress, the Emperor has sought interaction with disaster victims, in a form different from that pursued by the Emperor Emeritus and Empress Emirita.
One of the initiatives the Emperor and Empress have been involved in is the OECD Tohoku School, through which junior high and senior high school students from the three prefectures in the Tohoku region inform the world about the reconstruction efforts from the Great East Japan Earthquake.
In February 2013, the Emperor and Empress received a letter from a female high school student from Fukushima Prefecture who was planning an event in Paris that would highlight the reconstruction effort.
The letter read, “We will make an interim report in Tokyo in August. Would it be possible for you to come even for 10 minutes?”
A senior official at the Foreign Ministry had advised the student that the Empress, a former diplomat with experience in international affairs, might lend her support.
On Aug. 6, 2013, the very day that the report would be delivered, the student received a message through a close aide of the Emperor and Empress, saying, “We will be there today.”
With both of them in attendance, one male student was overwhelmed with emotion and shed tears while speaking about the difficulties that persimmon and peach farmers faced due to speculation about the safety of their crops following the accidents at the nuclear plant.
After listening intently to the students’ speeches, the Emperor and Empress let them know that their thoughts were understood, and they expressed their hope that the project would be a success.
The event was held in August the following year. During the event, local people in Paris supported the young people working toward reconstruction of the disaster-hit area.
After returning home, the participants prepared reports, using extra care before sending them to the Emperor and Empress.
They eventually received a message from the Empress in January this year, saying, “I was really delighted reading the report with the way all of you are moving forward with such strength.”
Yoko Tsurimaki was the one who initially wrote the letter. “With a sense of kind support from the Emperor and Empress, we were able to work on the event abroad with confidence,” she reflected.
At a press conference in February, the Emperor noted that while the Heisei era saw a series of natural disasters, it also witnessed the flourishing of young people who grew up in a peaceful society free from war.
“I wish younger generations continue to be active. I hope to stand by them,” he said.
At his accession to the throne ceremony on May 1, the Emperor vowed to devote himself to self-improvement. He will apply every experience he gained as crown prince while fulfilling his responsibility as the symbol of the state.Speech