TOKYO -- Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko were seen at Naha Airport in Okinawa Prefecture on the afternoon of March 29, 2018, in a climate just like early summer. The Imperial Couple had just completed their three-day visit to Okinawa Prefecture including Japan's westernmost island of Yonaguni.
The Imperial Couple strolled toward the terminal building after waving to Okinawa residents who saw them off. After walking about a dozen meters, the Emperor and Empress looked back twice and waved again to well-wishers. Once they boarded their special flight, they looked outside through the windows.
"I guess His Majesty was full of emotion as he thought it was his last visit to Okinawa as emperor," said an Imperial Household Agency official, who accompanied the Imperial Couple during their visit to Okinawa.
Okinawa is a special place for the Emperor as the southwestern most island prefecture suffered serious damage in World War II and was placed under U.S. rule for many years after the end of the war.
The Imperial Couple's latest visit to Okinawa, their 11th overall, was realized on the wishes of Emperor Akihito, who is to abdicate in April 2019.
The Emperor and Empress visited the National War Dead Peace Mausoleum in the prefectural city of Itoman shortly after arriving in Okinawa to commemorate those who died in the Battle of Okinawa and prayed for peace.
Since the law to allow the Emperor to abdicate was enacted in June 2017, the Emperor has carried out two official visits, reflecting his strong desire, besides the latest Okinawa trip. One was to the Fukuoka prefectural city of Asakura and the Oita prefectural city of Hita in October 2017, which had been hit hard by torrential rain in northern Kyushu, and the other to the Kagoshima prefectural islands of Yaku, Okinoerabu and Yoron the following month.
The Emperor had been originally scheduled to visit the Okinoerabu and Yoron islands in February 2012, but that trip was postponed because he underwent cardiac bypass surgery that month. Consoling the souls of the war dead and visiting remote islands as well as disaster-hit areas are official duties the Emperor has continued for many years. As the day of his abdication draws near, the Emperor is wondering whether there are any other places he should visit. In particular, he desires to see places he has been unable to tour despite plans to do so.
His Majesty is expected to visit Hokkaido's Rishiri Island in early August. A plan for him to visit the island had earlier been considered in 2011, but the plan was postponed because the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami hit eastern and northeastern Honshu in March of that year.
Sometime around summer 2010, Emperor Akihito began to consult with his aides over the possibility of abdicating in the future for fear that he might not be able to sufficiently fulfill his duties as the symbol of the State. However, the now 84-year-old Emperor continues to carry out his official duties almost as he has done before.
The day after coming back to Tokyo from Okinawa in March, he reportedly woke up at around 6 a.m. as usual, and strolled around his residence at the Imperial Palace with the Empress in an effort to maintain his health.
Emperor Akihito has undergone hormonal therapy to suppress the activities of cancer cells since he underwent surgery to treat his prostate cancer in 2003. There are also concerns that he may develop brittle-bone disease due to the wide effects of the therapy.
"His Majesty is considering how he should act as the symbol (of the State) on a daily basis. He takes walks in an effort to maintain his health (to continue to fulfill his duties)," said a senior official of the Imperial Household Agency.
"Over the remaining days, as I continue to carry out my duties as the symbol of the State, I would like to make preparations for passing the torch to the next era, together with the people concerned," Emperor Akihito told the press on the occasion of his 84th birthday in December 2017.
All the duties he will carry out from now on will be the last ones he will perform as emperor.
Shinichiro Yamamoto, grand steward of the Imperial Household Agency, said he will support the Emperor's performance of his official duties until his retirement.
"His Majesty will do his best to fulfill his duties until the last day on the throne. We'd like to support him so that he can maintain his health and reach his abdication day," Yamamoto said.
(This is part two of a five-part series)