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People in disaster-hit areas react to news of Emperor's possible abdication

Emperor Akihito talks to people who evacuated to a junior high school gymnasium in the Kumamoto Prefecture village of Minamiaso on May 19, 2016, following two deadly quakes in the prefecture. (Pool photo)

People in disaster-hit areas of Japan have shown surprise at news reports that 82-year-old Emperor Akihito has expressed his intention to abdicate -- a move that would allow his son Crown Prince Naruhito to ascend the Chrysanthemum Throne. They have also recalled the kind way Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko have interacted with people in areas where disasters have struck.

    "I want him to continue for longer," said 54-year-old construction worker Toshinori Owada, a resident of the Fukushima Prefecture village of Kawauchi after hearing the news on the possibility of Emperor Akihito abdicating.

    Owada received words from the Imperial Couple when they visited the village in October 2012 to observe decontamination work. "I was surprised at how they had studied decontamination," he said.

    At the time, Owada's company was handling decontamination work. The Emperor and Empress, wearing working clothes, approached Owada who was issuing instructions from on top of a dump truck, and asked him where he had brought the decontamination water from. He answered, from a nearby school pool, to which the Emperor replied "I appreciate your efforts" and lowered his head.

    "I was wearing a helmet and a mask, but the Emperor didn't wear a mask and listened earnestly," Owada recalls.

    Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko visited the Miyagi Prefecture town of Minamisanriku, an area badly damaged by the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami, on April 27, 2011. (Pool photo)

    On March 16 this year, the Imperial Couple visited the Fukushima Prefecture town of Miharu, and talked with residents of the village of Katsurao, which was entirely evacuated in the wake of the disaster at the Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant. In line with the evacuation, the village had set up a temporary office in Miharu.

    Construction company president Satomi Matsumoto, 48, talked about her experience of making holes with diggers to bury cows that had to be exterminated.

    "I was told, 'That must have been tough for you,'" she recalls. "I'm really happy for him (the Emperor) to have traveled to Fukushima so many times in spite of his age. I hope he can rest at ease."

    Mitsuo Fujiwara, 69, a farmer from the Kumamoto Prefecture village of Minamiaso whose home was swallowed by a landslide following the deadly quakes that hit the prefecture in April, saw the Imperial Couple when they visited on May 19 this year. Fujiwara said, Emperor Akihito, who met him in a gymnasium, asked him, "Is your health OK?" "He knelt on the floor and had a very kind face. We were moved and greatly encouraged." He added, "I felt his friendliness, as he has visited disaster areas each time there is a disaster and come eye to eye with the people, encouraging them. But I imagine he also experienced fatigue and heartache. I think it must have been hard for him in this age of rapid change."

    People in other areas of Japan who have met Emperor Akihito in person expressed similar views after hearing the news of his possible abdication. In June 2014, the Imperial Couple for the first time visited the Tsushima Maru Memorial Museum in the Okinawa Prefecture capital of Naha to console the souls of victims of the 1944 sinking of the Tsushima Maru, a student evacuation vessel. Over 1,400 passengers, many of them children, died when the passenger ship sank after it was struck by a torpedo from a U.S. submarine. During their visit, the Imperial Couple spoke with survivors and bereaved family members of those who died. One of the survivors, 76-year-old Masakatsu Takara, president of the Tsushima Maru Memorial Foundation, was 4 years old at the time. He lost his parents and seven siblings in the sinking.

    "The Imperial Couple are of the same generation as the children who lost their lives, and they showed a very deep attachment to the Tsushima Maru," he recalls. "They have made many trips to console the souls of victims, not only in Okinawa but overseas. Their Majesties must have faced many hard times, and I hope they have a good long rest."

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