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How are Japan's Imperial Family using the internet to connect with the public?

Japan's Emperor Naruhito and Empress Masako are seen in a video message to the public for New Year, at the Akasaka Imperial Residence in Tokyo's Minato Ward on Dec. 28, 2020. (Photo courtesy of the Imperial Household Agency)

TOKYO -- With opportunities for face-to-face interaction limited by the coronavirus pandemic, the Imperial Family of Japan and royal families in other countries have been looking for new ways to communicate with their people.

    The Mainichi Shimbun took a look at how the Imperial Family and other royal dynasties have changed their approach to addressing the public in the face of national crises brought by the viral spread.

    "I ask that you all take good care of yourselves," said Emperor Naruhito to victims of the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake living in northeast Japan's Iwate Prefecture, during a March 4 online afternoon meeting, which he joined from the Akasaka Imperial Residence in Tokyo. The attendees from Iwate -- one of the prefectures most affected by the earthquake and tsunami disasters 10 years ago -- could be seen on screen.

    Although Emperor Naruhito and Empress Masako expressed a strong desire to go and see people in the disaster-stricken areas for the 10th anniversary, visits were called off over the coronavirus. Instead, they held online conversations with victims from the Iwate Prefecture cities of Rikuzentakata and Kamaishi.

    The Emperor and Empress have expressed sympathy for those affected, and have since the 2011 disasters paid a total of nine visits to the three heavily-affected Tohoku region prefectures. There were instances when, even after Imperial Household Agency staff had signaled the couple's time was up at an engagement, they continued to ask questions to the people they met.

    Futoshi Toba, mayor of Rikuzentakata, who attended the March 4 online event and explained the state of the area's recovery, said, "Although it's important they see our towns with their own eyes, I'm grateful we had an opportunity to converse in this form even during the coronavirus crisis." An individual affected by the 2011 disasters recalled the expressions on the faces of the Emperor and Empress, saying, "Even with their masks on, I could tell they were smiling to us warmly."

    The coronavirus has been affecting the Imperial Family's activities for just over a year. Following the cancellation of the public gathering to celebrate Emperor Naruhito's birthday in February 2020, Imperial visits to regional areas and other public events have all been postponed or canceled. This is in stark contrast to 2019 when there was a series of events and ceremonies related to the Emperor's enthronement, and there have been drastically fewer opportunities for the Imperial Couple to appear before the public.

    Under the postwar Imperial system that deems the emperor "the symbol of the State," the Imperial Family have cherished their interaction with the Japanese public. Notably, Emperor Emeritus Akihito and Empress Emerita Michiko visited all Japan's 47 prefectures twice during the 30 years of the Heisei era (1989-2019). In addition to regional annual events, including the national tree-planting festival, the couple visited the southernmost prefecture of Okinawa -- a battleground during World War II -- and areas hit by major disasters including the Great East Japan Earthquake. They have conversed and interacted with the people on multiple occasions.

    While direct visits to areas across Japan are currently difficult, Emperor Naruhito and Empress Masako have listened repeatedly to the views of experts and others on the pandemic's social consequences. Amid this, the Imperial Family has taken note of the potential offered by online tools. In a February press conference, the Emperor said, "I discussed various issues with the Imperial Household Agency, and reached the decision to connect with you all online."

    While Crown Prince Akishino and Crown Princess Kiko have been actively using online methods since spring 2020, it was only in the autumn that the Emperor and Empress began using them to interact with the public. The Imperial Household Agency initially took a cautious view of the technology.

    "The Imperial Household Agency may have thought turning to the internet could give people the impression they can meet the Emperor and Empress easily," said Hideya Kawanishi, an associate professor at Nagoya University's graduate school who researches the emperor's role as state symbol. The Imperial Household Agency cited "cybersecurity concerns" and the "inability to speak to the public in the same space" as reasons for their caution. However, Kawanishi said, "I think besides those circumstances, there were probably fears the Emperor's authority could be undermined."

    However, gradual changes were seen in the Imperial Family's communications with the public. Emperor Naruhito -- who researched the history of water transport at Gakushuin University and the University of Oxford, and whose life's work has been to address water issues in the environment and disasters -- used the internet to join an international conference on water disaster prevention with Empress Masako in August 2020.

    Kenzo Hiroki, professor at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies and the conference's facilitator, quoted the Emperor as saying, "There was a sense of realism to the meeting; I felt a connection among the attendees." It appears that after this, "the idea of online visits by the Emperor and Empress entered full-scale discussion," according to a source close to the Imperial Household Agency.

    In November 2020, Empress Masako attended her first online meeting with the Japanese Red Cross Medical Center, for whom she serves as honorary president, and health care workers with Japanese Red Cross hospitals across the country. She subsequently paid her respects online to victims of the Kyushu torrential rain disaster in Kumamoto Prefecture in southwestern Japan. Following these, internet use for Imperial Family engagements gathered pace.

    Amid this, Emperor Naruhito issued his New Year message to the public in an unusual way. "I'd like to offer my New Year greetings in this video," he said in the video message uploaded to the Imperial Household Agency's website on the morning of Jan. 1. While the video address was an alternative to the traditional New Year public visits to the Imperial Palace, he then went on to talk about his thoughts toward the people facing the pandemic. Empress Masako was also present. It was the first video message to the public from the current Emperor.

    The video message was 6 minutes and 45 seconds long. What left a lasting impression was the sight of the Emperor and Empress talking while gazing straight ahead, without wearing masks, which they have made sure to use when appearing before the public. Although usually during ceremonies and other occasions they read from paper at hand, they reportedly used a teleprompter this time. "The Emperor must have thought it'd be better to show his expressions and speak while meeting the public's gaze," an aide speculated.

    In the video, Empress Masako also said, "I believe many people have gone through very hard times." It was the first time in about 18 years for Empress Masako, who is still receiving treatment for an adjustment disorder diagnosed in 2004, to speak directly to the public herself. Regarding her participation in the video, a source close to the Imperial Household Agency said, "I think it could be done precisely because it was online, which has a relatively reduced burden." They added, "Videos with messages from the Emperor and Empress together did not exist in the Heisei era. This may soon come to be known as a 'Reiwa-style' method."

    Overseas, countries have also been looking for ways for heads of state to communicate online with the public amid the coronavirus pandemic.

    In a video message on the night of April 5, 2020, Queen Elizabeth II addressed the British public amid the first wave of coronavirus infections, and said, "if we remain united and resolute, then we will overcome it". Queen Elizabeth, who last year marked 68 years on the throne, rarely addresses the public in this way. The exceptions to this are her annual Christmas speeches, her 1991 address during the Gulf War and her message following Princess Diana's death in 1997. About one hour after she delivered her speech, it was revealed that British Prime Minister Boris Johnson had been admitted to hospital with the coronavirus, after isolating himself following infection. Amid a series of extraordinary events, the Queen's words were a source of comfort for the British people.

    The coronavirus has done great damage to Europe, behind only North America. Europe has many monarchies, and royal families in countries besides the U.K. have also frequently issued statements amid the pandemic. In Belgium, King Philippe and Queen Mathilde visited a hospital accepting COVID-19 patients in November 2020. The royal couple were described as expressing gratitude to health care workers while wearing face shields and other protective equipment.

    Meanwhile, Sweden's King Carl XVI Gustaf said candidly that the country's loose anti-coronavirus measures which eschewed lockdown had "failed." The remark caused a stir as an extremely unusual political statement. Among Scandinavian countries, Sweden has an overwhelmingly large number of coronavirus infections and deaths.

    Royal families have also been subject to criticism. In October 2020, it was revealed that King Willem-Alexander and Queen Maxima of the Netherlands had gone on holiday to a villa in Greece while the government was calling on the public to refrain from traveling. Following a backlash, the two returned to the country after cutting the vacation short.

    The coronavirus pandemic has brought to the fore difficulties faced by royalty around the world when considering how to address the public in a crisis. Naotaka Kimizuka, a professor at Kanto Gakuin University specializing in the history of European international politics and an expert on foreign monarchies, said, "Foreign monarchies have been actively providing updates on their activities along with photos and videos on social media. They are in stark contrast to the actions taken by Japan's Imperial Household Agency, which have been limited to updating its website."

    He added, "I suppose the Imperial Family could slightly increase opportunities to show themselves to the public while taking thorough anti-infection measures."

    (Japanese original by Takeshi Wada, City News Department, and Kosuke Hatta, Foreign News Department)

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