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Symbol of the State: Empress Michiko's proactive involvement in society

Emperor Akihito, left, and Empress Michiko are seen in the city of Kochi, on Oct. 28, 2018. (Mainichi/Tadashi Kako)

TOKYO -- On July 1, 2017, Empress Michiko visited the Japan Braille Library in the Takadanobada district of Tokyo's Shinjuku Ward where she was greeted by violinist Takayoshi Wanami.

She shook hands with him saying, "Mr. Wanami, it's Michiko. How are you doing?" Since Wanami is blind, the Empress always speaks to him by identifying herself.

Empress Michiko visited the library to attend a gathering of the Japan Association of Braille Music that shares musical scores translated into Braille. The association was founded with the support of the Empress.

The story began this way. In August 1999, Empress Michiko invited Wanami and his wife to her residence at the Imperial Palace. After practicing piano in a friendly atmosphere, the Empress was quoted as telling the couple, "Can proceeds from my books be used to spread Braille musical scores?" The Empress knew that it is difficult to spread Braille music because such efforts relied heavily on volunteers.

However, there was no organization capable of coordinating such efforts at the time, and her proposal was placed on hold.

Then five years later around the autumn of 2004, Wanami received a similar proposal from the Empress through Japan Braille Library head Tetsuji Tanaka.

The Empress "must have always been looking for an opportunity" to move the project ahead, Wanami said. "I felt her strong will."

Following the second proposal, Wanami joined hands with Tanaka in asking for help from various organizations and individuals involved in volunteer Braille translations. The following year, Wanami and Tanaka founded the Japan Association of Braille Music and received donations from the Empress. The organization has since collected the Braille music scores of nearly 8,000 pieces.

Empress Michiko has expanded the fields of her activities based on her interests, while taking over various roles performed by successive empresses, such as the honorary presidency of the Japanese Red Cross Society. She often visits exhibitions of art works and concerts by disabled people by herself.

Children's literature is another field she is interested in. Empress Michiko has participated in English poetry recital gatherings, and she was asked by the Japan branch of the International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY) to translate poems composed by poet Michio Mado into English in the late 1980s. The translated poems were published in 1992 as "The Animals," and were acclaimed internationally.

In 2002, Empress Michiko attended the IBBY Basel Congress celebrating the 50th anniversary of its foundation. In a speech she made in English during the gathering, the Empress recalled that she was moved by reading books in her childhood and expressed hope that children who have survived despite having sorrow and pain "might lead our world of tomorrow with the new wisdom" that only those who have experienced the utmost sorrow and pain and yet survived that could possess. It was the first overseas visit by a Japanese empress alone.

Kiyoko Matsuoka, 57, deputy director of the Itabashi Art Museum in Tokyo's Itabashi Ward who was present at the gathering, recalls that she was impressed that the Empress addressed the audience by saying, "Dear friends."

Matsuoka said Empress Michiko "acted as one of the participants at the congress. She gave courage to many like-minded people."

Itabashi recalls that the Empress earnestly exchanged views with many other attendees during the congress.

These activities by the Empress are related closely to how the Emperor thinks he should act as the symbol of state and the unity of the people as stipulated by the postwar Constitution.

At a news conference in 2009, Emperor Akihito said, "...I believe that I am what I am today as a result of many things I have absorbed since opening that window called marriage."

While performing official duties together with the Emperor, the Empress shows the way she lives as a woman who is actively involved in society.

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

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