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Symbol of the state: Emperor took Hansen's disease patients' struggles as his own

Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko talk with residents of National Sanatorium Tama Zenshoen in Higashimurayama, Tokyo, in this file photo from March 4, 1991. (Mainichi)

"There is one thing that I regret," Emperor Akihito told Yohei Sasakawa, chairman of the Nippon Foundation, at the Imperial Palace on Jan. 13, 2015. Sasakawa was explaining the circumstances surrounding Hansen's disease prior to the foundation's release of the Global Appeal for elimination of discrimination against former patients with the disease at a gathering in Tokyo.

The "one thing" referred to the fact that the Emperor had not been able to visit the National Sanatorium Oshimaseishoen in Takamatsu, Kagawa Prefecture. The Emperor has visited all 13 other sanatoriums where former patients of Hansen's disease, or leprosy, are living.

In April 1968, Emperor Akihito visited National Sanatorium Amami-Wakouen on the Kagoshima Prefecture island of Amami Oshima when he was Crown Prince. He has since taken the opportunity of traveling to various areas across the country to visit the 13 sanatoriums. At these facilities, the Emperor took patients' hands and spoke to them. Each time, the Emperor was accompanied by Empress Michiko.

Many of these sanatoriums for patients with Hansen's disease were built in areas away from residential areas against the backdrop of discrimination against sufferers deeply rooted in society. Oshimaseishoen is on Oshima Island in the Seto Inland Sea.

Emperor Akihito apparently expressed his desire to visit the facility when he traveled to Kagawa Prefecture in 2004 on the occasion of a gathering to raise public awareness of the need to maintain aquatic resources and protect the oceanic environment and of the importance of the fisheries industry.

However, he gave up on a visit because a large ship used for his trip was unable to enter a port on the small island. Residents of the sanatorium traveled to Takamatsu where they met the Emperor.

Emperor Akihito has met residents of all of the 14 sanatoriums but he expressed regret having been unable to visit Oshimaseishoen. When he talked with Sasakawa, the Emperor mentioned curative drugs for the disease and the current situation of sanatoriums. Sasakawa remembers he was surprised at the Emperor's deep understanding of and interest in the matter.

"Would you please meet former patients who will be present at the Global Appeal announcement meeting?" Sasakawa asked the Emperor, who complied.

On Jan. 28, 2015, two weeks after that, former patients were invited to the Emperor's residence at the Imperial Palace. Among the former patients was Kazuo Mori, 78, a resident of Oshimaseishoen who had met the Emperor in Takamatsu in 2004.

"I was glad that His Majesty cared about residents at sanatoriums driven out of their families and society, and wanted to meet them," Mori recalls.

Doctor Minoru Narita, 90, who previously headed National Sanatorium Tama Zenshoen in Higashimurayama, western Tokyo, clearly remembers the Emperor's interactions with students at a nursing school attached to the sanatorium when the Imperial Couple visited the facility on March 4, 1991.

The students gathered at the entrance to the sanatorium to see off the Imperial Couple. The Emperor stopped and asked the students, "Where will you work after graduation?"

One female student replied, "I'll work at this sanatorium."

The Emperor smiled and said, "Thank you."

Narita said, "In such a situation, you would usually say, 'Try hard' or 'do your best.' 'Thank you' sounded like appreciative words from a patient."

The Emperor's words were "very natural and surprising," recalls Narita, who instructed his students to try to understand the feelings of patients and provide nursing services from patients' perspectives.

Whenever he sees Emperor Akihito take trips to console the souls of the war dead and visit disaster-hit areas, Narita thinks that the Emperor probably "takes anybody's hardship and sorrow as his own."

The style of the symbol of the state and of the unity of the people, which the Emperor has established over the past 30 years since he acceded to the Imperial Throne, has deeply impressed people, including those who met him.

This is Part 4 and the final article in this series.

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