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Ex-grand steward lauds Emperor for establishing ideal 'symbol of state'

Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko talk with people who speak on the plight of Minamata disease patients, at the Minamata Disease Municipal Museum in the city of Minamata, Kumamoto Prefecture, in this Oct. 27, 2013 file photo. (Pool photo)

TOKYO -- With Emperor Akihito set to abdicate on April 30, former Imperial Household Agency Grand Steward Noriyuki Kazaoka shared his feelings with the Mainichi Shimbun about His Majesty's retirement and recalled the days he spent serving the Emperor.

"Their Majesties the Emperor and Empress have fulfilled their important duties even at their advanced age, and I'm truly relieved that the Emperor is going to mark his abdication," Kazaoka said.

Noriyuki Kazaoka (Mainichi/Hiroyuki Takashima)

A former vice-minister of land, infrastructure, transport and tourism, Kazaoka, now 72, became vice grand steward at the Imperial Household Agency in April 2005. He held the agency's top post from June 2012 through September 2016, supporting Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko.

Kazaoka was involved in the release of a video message in August 2016 in which the Emperor indicated his apparent desire to abdicate. "I asked His Majesty about it (making the video) as I thought it was most appropriate for him to express his feelings to the public. I believe His Majesty also felt that necessity," Kazaoka said.

The video message sparked sympathy among the public and led to the enactment of a special law allowing Emperor Akihito to abdicate.

"Amid (Japan's) ultra-aging society, the video catalyzed in-depth discussions on how the Emperor's duties as the symbol of the state should be," Kazaoka said.

The Imperial Household Agency had been reviewing the Emperor's activities as he was aging even before the video was released. While the agency reduced Emperor Akihito's speeches at ceremonies, "the Emperor held to the idea that he would continue his activities as usual because he prioritized fairness."

The Emperor underwent heart surgery in February 2012. "We often had to put burdens and pressures on the Emperor, and I still feel sorry for it," Kazaoka commented.

Only a week after leaving the hospital, Emperor Akihito attended a memorial ceremony in Tokyo marking the first anniversary of the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami. Kazaoka, who accompanied Their Majesties to the event, recalled, "When I saw the Emperor at the ceremony, I felt that was the way the symbol of the state should be."

His Majesty has continued to engage in exchanges with the public, visiting all of Japan's 47 prefectures twice each. For Kazaoka, one of the most memorable visits was the Emperor's trip to Kumamoto Prefecture in southwestern Japan to attend the National Convention for the Development of an Abundantly Productive Sea in October 2013.

After talking with Minamata disease patients, the Emperor stated, "I once again thought that we should create a society where we can live the way we are."

Those words had not been prepared in advance, and the venue was wrapped in the silence. After that, Kazaoka made notes of the Emperor's words and put them in the breast pocket of his suit.

"The Emperor always prioritized his public duties, and he often made his stance clear that it was important to cherish the public," Kazaoka said.

Looking back on the years of the Heisei era, Kazaoka noted, "It is an era when Their Majesties have worked together in establishing the ideal way the symbol of the state should be, exactly as it is desired by the public."

Referring to the post-abdication days, Kazaoka remarked, "I hope Their Majesties will be able to lead peaceful days so they can relax both physically and mentally."

(Japanese original by Hiroyuki Takashima, City News Department)

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