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Symbol of the state: Empress Michiko's concern for the public

Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko visit victims of the March 11, 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, and the tsunami and nuclear disaster that ensued, for the first time on March 30, 2011 at Tokyo Budokan in Tokyo's Adachi Ward, which had been turned into an evacuation center. (Pool photo)

On March 12, 2011, the day after the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami devastated a wide swath of eastern Japan, the former chair of the Japanese Nursing Association (JNA), Hiroko Minami, was in the capital city of Kochi Prefecture on the island of Shikoku, in western Japan. That was where she received a call on her cell phone. It was from Empress Michiko.

"Do you have any information where you are?" the Empress asked. "Are there any activities in particular that nurses are participating in?"

Minami, 76, a leading figure in the field of disaster nursing, and Empress Michiko have known each other for some 20 years. The Empress's desperation for any crumb of information on what was happening on the ground was palpable.

"I wish I could pay a visit to the disaster areas as soon as possible, but that would only cause more trouble," the Empress continued. "I'm thinking about how and when I can actually go." The calls from Empress Michiko continued after March 12.

Minami was not the only person who received phone calls from Empress Michiko amid the confusion of the triple -- quake, tsunami and nuclear -- disasters.

Four days after the massive quake, Sumiki Yamamoto, 80, a member of the Japan Rheumatism Foundation board, picked up the phone to hear the Empress's voice. "Are any rheumatism patients in the disaster areas in trouble?" she asked. Empress Michiko, who had been taking part in exchanges with rheumatism patients since she was the crown princess, was worried about the possibility of drug shortages and deteriorating treatment conditions.

Yamamoto had been resigned that in such a large-scale life-or-death disaster, it would be difficult to immediately secure arrangements for rheumatism patients. The Empress's call was the nudge needed to bring support for rheumatism patients into full swing.

--- Getting closer to quake, tsunami victims

Around the same time, Empress Michiko was contacting experts about confirming the safety of foreigners of Japanese descent living in Japan, and receiving reports about rescue efforts from the Japanese Red Cross Society at her residence at the Imperial Palace with Emperor Akihito.

When she learned that a long-time friend, 77-year-old editor Chieko Suemori, who lived in Iwate Prefecture, was sending picture books to children in the disaster areas, the Empress began sending picture books that she owned.

Whenever a natural disaster occurs, be it an earthquake or a volcanic eruption, Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko visit the areas affected by the disasters to directly offer survivors words of encouragement and condolences. In the case of the triple disasters of the Great East Japan Earthquake, the Imperial Couple also had a strong desire to rush to the victims of the disaster as soon as possible.

The Imperial Household Agency began deliberating a visit by the couple to the three most badly hit prefectures of Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima in northeastern Japan. But ongoing search-and-rescue efforts, combined with a nuclear crisis, made it all but impossible for the Imperial Couple to visit. While senior officials at the agency racked their brains over what to do, Empress Michiko's suggestion that they "start going where possible" turned the tide.

The Empress attends a ceremony celebrating the 35th anniversary of the Japan Rheumatism Foundation's establishment in Tokyo on May 17, 1995. (Photo courtesy of the Japan Rheumatism Friendship Association)

Based on the Empress's suggestion, the couple's vision was to start with the greater Tokyo metropolitan area, Chiba and Ibaraki prefectures, then onto the three gravely hit Tohoku region prefectures. One then senior agency official said, "We were made aware (by the Empress) that victims of the disaster were going through a tough time regardless of where they were, and it wasn't a time for us to be fixating on where the couple met with them."

There were concerns that the trip would be too hard on the Imperial Couple, since the Emperor was 77 and the Empress was 76, but the couple's vision began to progress toward reality.

On March 30, 2011, 19 days after the quake hit, the couple was at Tokyo Budokan arena in Tokyo's Adachi Ward, where evacuees from Fukushima Prefecture and elsewhere were staying. "To think how much you've gone through," the couple said to the evacuees. "You must have been so scared."

The visits continued for seven consecutive weeks, spread over seven prefectures. The Imperial Couple was able to visit the three hard-hit prefectures in the Tohoku region from late April to May.

--- An Empress always caring for others

Empress Michiko's warm, thoughtful consideration for others is evident in her words and in her actions, however small. Former JNA chair Minami says that when Mount Usu in the northernmost prefecture of Hokkaido erupted in 2000, the Empress, after seeing news reports, told her, "People at the evacuation center appeared to have chapped lips. Perhaps they're in need of lip balm."

When the Empress and the Emperor visited the southern Japanese prefecture of Kumamoto in May 2016, a month after a massive quake struck there, Empress Michiko appeared with a pin badge of the prefectural bear mascot Kumamon attached to her hip. It had been given to her by Kumamoto Gov. Ikuo Kabashima when she attended an event held in the prefecture three years prior. A former aide to the Empress said, "Such gestures have likely been built up since she was the crown princess."

In 1957, after studying English literature at the University of the Sacred Heart, then Michiko Shoda met then Crown Prince Akihito at a tennis court in the resort town of Karuizawa in the central Japanese prefecture of Nagano. They married two years later. The public went crazy over the Imperial Family's first crown princess from a commoner family, and the media reported her every move.

Crown Princess Michiko accompanied the Crown Prince on his official duties in the regions, while also fulfilling her own official duties. Moreover, unlike previous crown princesses, her commitment to raising her children herself won over the hearts of many among the Japanese public -- while at the same time, drawing criticism from those who resisted change in the Imperial Family.

One woman who knew Empress Michiko when she was a student said, "Whenever she took part in a new activity, I believe she put in a lot of effort behind the scenes."

How should the symbolic Emperor and Empress of the Heisei era engage with the people of Japan? At a press conference in May 1998, the Empress said that she believed that there was an element of intimacy in the role that was meant to be fulfilled by the Imperial Family. The former aide to the Empress pointed out, "It is precisely because the Empress is by his side that the Emperor has been full of vitality, and has been able to shrink the distance between the Imperial Family and the public."

Minami says that she once asked the Empress why she was able to empathize so much with people's pain and sadness. The Empress answered, "I have had encounters with many people, and I have been taught by the many people I have met."

(Japanese original by Nao Yamada, Hiroyuki Takashima and Tomofumi Inagaki, City News Department)

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