SOMA, Fukushima -- Residents of this city ravaged by the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami are awaiting a visit by Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko from June 9 to 11.
This is expected to be the Imperial Couple's last trip to any of the three Tohoku prefectures hit hardest by the disaster before the Emperor abdicates in April 2019. This will also be the Imperial Couple's sixth visit to Fukushima Prefecture since the disaster and their first visit to Soma since their previous visit two months after the disaster. During their upcoming tour, the Emperor and the Empress will attend a tree-planting ceremony in the prefecture.
Tadao Ara, 76, who played a leading role as the head of a local volunteer fire squad in searching for those missing after the disaster and grasping the situation in the city, recalled shedding tears after the Emperor told him in May 2011, "It was tough, wasn't it?" at an elementary school that was used as an evacuation shelter.
He said, "His words warmed up my heart and made me feel relieved." The fire squad lost 10 of its members to tsunami.
Katsumi Kumakura, 80, who was posted to a morgue as a volunteer to help identify disaster victims while losing his own wife to the disaster, said the Emperor expressed concerns for Kumakura's health.
It was quite tough for Kumakura and others to persuade reluctant bereaved families to identify the bodies of their loved ones.
"The words of the person playing a special role as the symbol of the state had weight and were gentle," Kumakura recalled.
Soma Mayor Hidekiyo Tachiya guided the Emperor and Empress to a local elementary school and a coastal area where rubble was piled up during their previous visit to the city. While riding in a mini bus, Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko waved whenever they spotted local residents.
"Residents to whom Their Majesties waved looked happy. After that day, the atmosphere in this city certainly became brighter," the mayor said.
Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko will visit a cenotaph for disaster victims, which the city installed near where the Imperial Couple offered a prayer seven years ago, and meet the bereaved families of local fire corps members who died while guiding evacuees.
Fisheries facilities and a local bathing beach have since been restored.
"I'm full of emotion as Their Majesties will view the current situation in the city after they witnessed the city's state shortly after the quake disaster," said Ara.
(Japanese original by Ryusuke Takahashi, Minamisoma Local Bureau)