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Classic Ryukyu musician thankful for Emperor's continuous care for Okinawa

Choichi Terukina, who looks forward to "welcoming" Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko, is seen in Naha, on March 6, 2018. (Mainichi)

Choichi Terukina, a classic Okinawan instrument sanshin player and living national treasure, is looking forward to the planned visit by Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko to Okinawa Prefecture from March 27 to 29 as the Emperor has for many years shown his personal interest in the southernmost prefecture, paying tribute to those who died in the fierce Battle of Okinawa in multiple occasions.

"The Emperor has continued to look toward Okinawa warmly. I want to welcome him with a sense of gratitude," the 85-year-old classic Ryukyu musician said of the Imperial couple's visit. It will be their 11th and likely last visit to the island prefecture before his scheduled abdication in 2019.

"I am interested in Okinawan history and culture, because I believe it is our role to greet Okinawan residents and understand the history and culture of the prefecture in connection with its return (from the U.S.) to Japan and share that understanding with the Okinawan people," the Emperor once said at a press conference, adding that, "I have come to really enjoy listening to Okinawan music."

In 1982, 10 years after the return of Okinawa to Japan, Terukina was invited by then Crown Prince Akihito to do a rendition of traditional performing arts at the crown prince's residence at Togu Palace. In 2014, Emperor Akihito watched a traditional Okinawan stage performance showcased by a number of Okinawa Prefecture-based living national treasures, including Terukina, at the National Noh Theatre in Tokyo. "Knowing that the Emperor enjoyed watching the performance was encouraging," Terukina reveals.

The Emperor is also fond of composing traditional Okinawan poems called "Ryuka." He first penned one after his first visit to the prefecture in 1975 with the Empress, during which he inspected several World War II battle sites. He even used traditional Okinawan words such as "fusakaiyuru" to express the dense foliage he saw there.

This June 27, 2014 file photo shows Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko in Naha. (Mainichi)

On the eve of Okinawa Memorial Day on June 23, the Emperor's ryuka, which pays tribute to the war dead, is read aloud every year at a festival outside Okinawa Peace Hall in the prefectural city of Itoman.

Bereaved relatives from across Japan gather at the ceremony. The ryuka is sung with the melody of a local song known as "karayabushi," played in a joint performance by various schools of traditional Okinawan music.

Terukina has been involved in the ceremony since it first started in 1979. Regarding the Emperor's ryuka, Terukina says, "It's a warm song that pays tribute to comrades who died in Okinawa. It's a gem that I want to cherish."

Terukina lost his grandmother and elder brother in World War II. The sight of his grandmother's home being burned to the ground during the war is still vivid in his mind.

"No doubt there are still some people who experienced the war and have mixed emotions toward the Imperial system. But times have changed. I want to sing and pass down the poem by the Emperor, who has been a constant symbol of peace," Terukina says.

With about a year to go until the Emperor's abdication, this Imperial visit to Okinawa Prefecture feels special for Terukina. "I have all kinds of emotions -- gratitude, affinity, respect, and sadness. I want the Emperor to really enjoy this visit," Terukina says.

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