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Symbol of the state: An early morning surprise for evacuees of Miyake Island

A copy of the letter drawn by Mio Ikeda, a second grade elementary school student at the time, kept with a photo of the Imperial Couple's visit to Shimoda, Shizuoka Prefecture, at the Ikeda's residence on Miyake Island, part of Tokyo, taken on March 4, 2018. (Mainichi)

After living as an evacuee for a year, there was still no prospect of returning to the island where she was born. That's when 51-year-old Hiroko Ikeda was visited by a surprise guest.

    Having evacuated due to the volcanic eruption on Miyake Island, Tokyo, part of the Izu archipelago, to the city of Shimoda in Shizuoka Prefecture, Ikeda was awoken early from her sleep in a rented house in August 2001 by a neighbor announcing that she had a visitor. When she opened the door, she was greeted by the smiling faces of Emperor Akihito, Empress Michiko and their daughter Princess Nori (now Sayako Kuroda). Ikeda's daughter Mio, 24, was 7 years old and in her second year of elementary school at the time. Empress Michiko spoke to the young girl being carried on Hiroko's back, "Sorry. We didn't mean to wake you."

    Just a day earlier, the Imperial Couple had visited Shimoda Rinkai Gakuen school to support island dwellers living as evacuees. At the time, Mio had invited the couple to come visit her house. Empress Michiko smiled back at her -- they had taken her up on the offer.

    The Imperial Couple were residing at the Suzaki Imperial Villa in Shimoda. Ikeda could see the villa from her temporary housing. "We just happened to be out on a stroll," the Empress apparently told Ikeda.

    The majority of evacuees from Miyake Island in Shimoda were fishing folks that needed a place to anchor their boats. They wanted to return to the island as soon as possible, but spending their days unsure of the future had built up a fair amount of anxiety. The fishing grounds that were only a day trip by boat from Miyake Island were far from Shimoda, and the fishermen had to leave their houses for days at a time. That morning as well, Ikeda had seen off her fisherman husband Yuji, 55, before returning to sleep.

    Ikeda doesn't remember what she spoke to the Imperial Couple about -- she was in too much shock at the time. Still, "That surprise visit really gave me strength," she recalls. The next day, Mio drew a portrait of the Emperor and Empress and sent it as a letter of thanks. "When we can return to Miyake Island, please come and see us again," she wrote.

    Amid warnings of volcanic gas, Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko visit residents of Miyake Island, part of Tokyo, on March 7, 2006. (Pool)

    Roughly five years later, Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko visited the island after the residents had finally returned. Mio's wish was once again granted.

    The Imperial Couple often meet those who are facing difficulties, whether it is an area hard-hit by a disaster or on the front lines of welfare care. By listening to the voices and stories of the people there, they are said to fulfill an important role as a symbol of Japan and the unity of its people. The Mainichi Shimbun traces these steps back to the origin of this "Heisei Style" role of the Imperial Family.

    In September 2000, due to continuous eruptions on Miyake Island, all of its residents had been evacuated to locations far away. As a measure to provide employment for the islanders in the areas to which they evacuated, a farming area called "Yume Noen" (Dream farm) was opened in the Yumenoshima district of Tokyo's Koto Ward, and in April 2003, Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko paid the location a visit.

    "What's that?" Emperor Akihito's eye had been caught by a rough flower pot that looked like a rock and he paused in a corner of a workshop, asking the question of nearby workers and others.

    What had caught Emperor Akihito's attention was the "lava pots" that were used at Yume Noen, made from lava from Miyake Island. Once the Emperor had taken it in, he began asking more questions. The workers sent one of the pots to the Imperial Palace for the couple as a thank you gift for their visit.

    In March 2006, about a year after the evacuation order was lifted and the islanders returned to their homes, the Imperial Couple made a visit to Miyake Island. Due to volcanic gases, there were still some areas on the island where residents were not allowed to live, and when it rained, islanders' skin would sometimes turn red from the substances contained in the gases. It was because of these conditions that the Imperial Couple made an unusual visit to the island carrying gas masks. When they got off the helicopter that brought them to Miyake Island, Emperor Akihito approached the people who had come to meet them, and called out to one elderly resident in a wheelchair and others. It was raining, but the Emperor was not using an umbrella, and the cuffs of his pants were apparently wet.

    When Empress Michiko said, "The flower pot I received has turned a beautiful shade of green," to Hiroji Moriya, former secretary of the forestry cooperative in Miyake Island who came up with the idea of lava pots, he didn't know what to say for a moment. There was no way that brown or black lava could turn green. Then, it hit him. He had planted moss as a measure to prevent water from leaking from the tiny holes in the lava flower pots. "The empress planted flowers in the pot, and by continuing to water them, the moss had also grown," he figured.

    When the mayor of the village of Miyake at the time, 70-year-old Sukeyasu Hirano, had visited the Imperial Palace to explain the state of the reconstruction on the island, he saw that there was a lava flower pot in the corner of the room filled with flowers. He says Emperor Akihito told him that he watered the planted flowers every day.

    "He never forgot about the island," Hirano recalled. "When Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko visited the island, it sent a message to everyone that 'the island is safe,' and tourists began to come as well."

    The first time Emperor Akihito made a visit to a location heavily hit by disaster was in his capacity as the Crown Prince in October 1959. He visited the prefectures of Aichi, Gifu and Mie, which had been ravaged by a typhoon in Ise Bay that had claimed over 5,000 lives. The site was still in a state of chaos, and some criticized the visit saying "the residents must focus now on reconstruction." Still, the sight of him visiting the area gave those suffering from the disaster strength.

    One rainy day during his trip, Crown Prince Akihito got out of the car in Unuma, currently in the city of Kakamigahara, Gifu Prefecture, to call out to an elementary school girl:

    "What happened to your house?"

    The girl silently pointed to a piece of lumber. When he left her side, he said, "Please find a way to stay healthy for me."

    After ascending the Chrysanthemum Throne, Emperor Akihito visited the areas ravaged by the eruption of Mount Unzen's Fugendake peak in Nagasaki Prefecture in July 1991. At an evacuation center, the Emperor rolled up his sleeves, knelt on the floor of the facility and listened to the stories of the victims. The act left a vivid impression on the people of Japan.

    "I believe that taking interest in the stories of people with disabilities, the elderly, those struck by disaster, or even those who devote themselves to society and other people is one of our most important tasks," Emperor Akihito revealed at a press conference celebrating the 10th anniversary of this ascension to the throne on Nov. 10, 1999. This June, he made a trip to Fukushima Prefecture. While his visit to the areas affected by the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and ensuing tsunami may be his last official visit while on the throne, Emperor Akihito continued like he always had -- providing strength and courage to victims of disaster.

    "What exactly is his role as a symbol of the nation?" questioned a former aide to the emperor. "He realized as emperor what he had sought during his time as the crown prince, and created the 'Heisei-style' emperor."

    One wonders if his feelings toward each victim he met led him to the next site of his visit.

    This is Part 1 in a series.

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