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Symbol of the State: Empress Michiko's honest words resonate with the people

Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko greet locals near the Hayama Imperial Villa, in Hayama, Kanagawa Prefecture, on Feb. 19, 2018. (Mainichi/Masahiro Ogawa)

On the occasion of her birthday on Oct. 20 each year, Empress Michiko releases a statement reflecting upon the events of the last year in the form of answering questions from the press. Commenting on incidents such as the fatal fall of a visually impaired individual onto the railway tracks at a station, to natural disasters, crimes and even sports, the subjects that the Empress covers vary widely.

In 2017, Empress Michiko spoke of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) winning the Nobel Peace Prize. While saying, "Japan's position regarding nuclear weapons is complicated," her written statement stated, "I feel it is most significant that, owing to the efforts of the atomic bomb survivors in Hiroshima and Nagasaki over many long years, the world seems to have finally turned its attention to the inhumanity of nuclear weapons and the horrifying consequences once they are used." While the Japanese government, which did not adopt the United Nations Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, tried to distance itself from ICAN, the Empress celebrated those who were working for peace.

Aside from her yearly statement, Empress Michiko has captured the interest of many with her activities, which include records of her speeches and collections of Japanese waka poems that have been published both in Japan and abroad. Still, over her roughly 30 years as the crown princess during the Showa era and her 30 years as the Empress over the Heisei era, a former close aide commented, "There must have been continuous troubles and distress."

One of these incidents was "empress bashing" that broke out in 1993, centered in the pages of weekly magazines. False information such as "The Empress had a natural grove of trees that Emperor Showa loved cut down" made its rounds. According to those familiar with the matter, there was even resistance within the Imperial Household Agency toward Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko as they tried to finds ways to close the distance between the Imperial Family and the citizens of Japan. The Empress took the brunt of the abuse, as she was in a position that was much easier to attack than that of the Emperor himself.

On her 59th birthday, the same year as the spread of the harsh fake news, Empress Michiko collapsed and had difficulties uttering a voice. In her yearly birthday commentary, she wrote a rare response to the criticism. "Whatever criticism may come my way, I think I should listen carefully as a means of personal reflection. However, I am greatly saddened and bewildered by the untruthful news reports," she wrote, hinting that the reason for her collapse had been the strain the scandal had put on her.

At the end of 1993, pianist Izumi Tateno, now 81, was invited to the Akasaka-gosho palace in Tokyo's Minato Ward, where the Imperial Couple was living at the time, for a performance. While having dinner with Emperor Akihito and the couple's only daughter Princess Nori, now Sayako Kuroda, the Emperor would read aloud notes written by the Empress to converse, bringing laughter to all those present. Surrounded by the warmth of her family, Empress Michiko was able to overcome her stress.

The Empress has never spoken of her troubles publically. However, in a video message played at an international conference for the International Board on Books for Young People held in India in 1998, she hinted at turning to reading books for solace. "Reading has taught me that everything in life is not simple at all," she said. "We all have to continue living while enduring these complications -- in our relationships between people, in relationships between countries as well."

While putting her obligations to support Emperor Akihito above all else, Empress Michiko continued to engage with society and let her own thoughts be known. The nervousness she must have felt from day to day can surely not be measured. But what is it in her statements that so resonated with the people of Japan? Another former aide posited, "Isn't it precisely because her delicate and honest statements came from a place of having experienced hardships and the limits of her position that they echoed so in the hearts of others?"

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

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