Naruhito moving toward more direct interaction with the public

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In the five years since he ascended the Chrysanthemum Throne, Emperor Naruhito couldn’t interact with the public directly for much of that time due to the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Now, he’s trying to make up for lost time and fulfill his desire to be among the people.

For close to three of those years since Naruhito became emperor on May 1, 2019, he had to rely on online encounters with people rather than meeting directly with them as the pandemic raged.

Now, he and Empress Masako have already made two visits to the Noto Peninsula area devastated by the New Year’s Day magnitude-7.6 .

And Naruhito has also been known to go off script during those visits.

During the April 12 visit to Anamizu, Naruhito and Masako visited an area of ​​retail outlets that still showed many signs of destruction, including one structure where the upper part had collapsed onto the ground floor.

Anamizu Mayor Koki Yoshimura explained the damage to the imperial couple when Naruhito suddenly asked, “May I be allowed to speak with them?”

He then walked toward a beauty salon because the emperor noticed someone inside had been waving at him.

That action took Yoshimura by surprise because any visit by the imperial couple is carefully coordinated down to the last minute, mainly due to security concerns.

Yoshimura later told reporters that the direct encounter with quake victims was “totally unexpected.”

According to the woman who was in the beauty salon, the imperial couple asked her if she was all right.

Naruhito and Masako made their first visit to the Noto Peninsula area on March 22.

Sources said two visits to the same region over a comparatively short period of time was due to the concerns the imperial couple had about the Noto Peninsula region, which is also struggling to deal with a graying population and rural communities becoming increasingly isolated.

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A high-ranking Imperial Household Agency official said, “From soon after the natural disaster, the emperor was of a mind that any visit to the region would not be completed by just one trip.”

During visits to evacuation centers, the imperial couple also unexpectedly spoke with disaster victims as well as those providing support.

At a news conference in February, Naruhito said, “I want to visit various regions while consulting with Masako so that we are able to accurately understand what it is the imperial family should do for the people.”

Visits to areas hit by natural disaster are a practice established by Emperor Emeritus Akihito and Empress Emerita Michiko.

While Naruhito has carried on that tradition, his lifelong research into water issues has also emerged in various ways.

“The emperor’s insistence on being at the site of whatever is occurring was likely developed through his research on water issues that he has been involved in for many years since he was crown prince,” he said Kenzo Hiroki, a professor of international cooperation at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies, who is also research adviser to Naruhito.

Hiroki is also knowledgeable about global water issues and he explained to Naruhito the disaster that hit the Noto Peninsula area about a month after it occurred.

Naruhito asked Hiroki if there was anything that could be done to protect water pipes during earthquakes.

Recalling that exchange, Hiroki said, “Through his research into water issues, the emperor held a deep understanding of how serious the disaster was.”

Although Naruhito had said the imperial family must always be among the people, less than a year after he became emperor, the novel coronavirus pandemic prevented direct contact and he turned to online meetings to carry out imperial duties from autumn 2020.

Yasuhiko Nishimura, the head of the Imperial Household Agency, said the health scare was the most important development over the past five years.

“Various new measures have been implemented based on the thinking of the imperial couple,” Nishimura said.

(This article was written by Shoko Rikimaru and Ayako Nakada.)

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