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Symbol of the State: Emperor's visits to disaster zones helped define 'Heisei way'

Emperor Akihito, right, and Empress Michiko talk to evacuees after a major earthquake hit the island of Okushiri off the southwestern coast of Hokkaido in northern Japan on July 27, 1993. (Mainichi)

Emperor Akihito, who is to abdicate in April 2019, turns 85 on Dec. 23 -- his last birthday as emperor. Makoto Iokibe, an expert in political and diplomatic history, has met the Emperor on numerous occasions to lecture on these topics, as well as on natural disasters.

Makoto Iokibe (Mainichi)

The following are excerpts of an interview with Iokibe, who explained the content of a lecture he gave Emperor Akihito in July 2011, just a few months after the March 11, 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami. This lecture was based on the proceedings of the Reconstruction Design Council in response to the Great East Japan Earthquake, an organ of the Cabinet Secretariat which Iokibe chaired.

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Q: What did you speak about to the Emperor?

A: The Imperial Household Agency made the proposal (to give a lecture), and then acting council chairman (and University of Tokyo visiting professor) Takashi Mikuriya, council study group chairman (and National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies professor) Jun Iio and I spoke on shifting settlements to high ground and industrial recovery, among other matters.

The Empjeror and Empress had been meeting survivors starting in late March (that year) and visited the disaster area, so they already had a good understanding of the real conditions.

Q: What do you suppose the Emperor thought when he visited the disaster zone?

A: I think that, more than just a simple symbol, he feels very strongly that he has a duty to bring the Japanese people together when they have been disrupted or are unhappy. I believe that's why, when the (1991) eruption of Mount Unzen (in southern Japan's Nagasaki Prefecture) happened, he made sure to visit there and join hands with the victims. He has made similar visits since then.

When he goes to a disaster area and stands hand-in-hand with people in terrible circumstances, he is expressing his determination that people at risk of being excluded from the wider community should not be left behind. He does the same thing for people with disabilities. I think he's an active symbol.

Q: Emperor Akihito really cares about the state of recovery after a disaster.

A: Following the (January 1995) Great Hanshin Earthquake (in western Japan's Kansai region), the Emperor invited the then governor of Hyogo Prefecture Toshitami Kaihara to the Imperial Palace just about every year to hear updates on the situation. After the Kumamoto Earthquake (of April 2016), he also invited Kumamoto Gov. Ikuo Kabashima to the palace last year and this year. I was also present, and the Emperor eagerly asked questions about recovery efforts (in the disaster area). He has also asked me many questions about disasters and recovery programs when I have met him on separate occasions.

Q: What meaning do you think Emperor Akihito's visits with victims have?

A: Masao Kokubo, (then) mayor of the town of Hokudan on Awaji Island in Hyogo Prefecture, which was badly damaged by the Great Hanshin Earthquake, said that the townspeople had lost heart because of the disaster. But the Emperor's visit brought them all together "to do our best one more time." Reviving people's lives and rebuilding is the job of politicians and experts, but a visit by the Emperor has meaning as a prayer and a support to bring everyone together. This practice has been introduced and strengthened by Their Majesties, and I suppose no one guessed that they would go this far.

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Emperor Akihito's first visit to a disaster area after ascending to the throne was following the volcanic eruption of Nagasaki Prefecture's Mount Unzen in July 1991. Along with Empress Michiko, he visited a gymnasium serving as an evacuation shelter and sat down with the evacuees one-on-one, speaking with them as he looked directly into their eyes. This left a strong impression on the Japanese people.

The Emperor also visited the disaster zones following the 1993 quake off the northernmost prefecture of Hokkaido, and the Great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995, establishing the practice as the "Heisei way." After the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, he met with survivors on one-day trips for seven straight weeks starting late the same month. This year, as his abdication next spring approaches, Emperor Akihito toured Okayama, Ehime and Hiroshima prefectures after they were struck by a torrential rain disaster in July, and visited Atsuma, Hokkaido, after it was devastated by a major earthquake in September.

(Japanese original interview by Hiroyuki Takashima, City News Department)

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