PROMETHEUS TRAP/ THE EMPEROR AND 3/11 DISASTER (5): SDF came to the rescue for imperial visit to Tohoku

June 07, 2014

By RYUICHI KITANO/ Senior Staff Writer

Editor's note: This is the fifth part of a new series under The Prometheus Trap heading. It centers on the involvement of imperial family members with victims of the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami, as well as the Fukushima nuclear accident. The series will appear on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.

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With roads and rail links in chaos after the earthquake and tsunami disaster, Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko had to rely on the Self-Defense Forces to get them to stricken areas of the Tohoku region.

For their visit to Miyagi Prefecture, plans called for the couple to board an SDF aircraft at Tokyo's Haneda Airport to take them to the Air SDF's Matsushima Air Base. From there, helicopters would ferry the couple to evacuation centers adjacent to playgrounds to drop them off.

Masaki Sugiyama, 55, the commander of Matsushima Air Base, was informed that the emperor and empress would be visiting on April 27, 2011. He was given about a week's notice.

Because it would be the first time the imperial couple had ever visited an SDF base, there was no precedent Sugiyama could refer to in preparing to welcome them.

Imperial Household Agency officials said Akihito had made it known he did not want special treatment. When it came to what would be served for lunch, the emperor was quoted as saying, "The curry and rice that SDF members usually eat at the base mess will suffice."

In the event, a nearby inn was asked to prepare boxed lunches.

Three female SDF members were assigned to attend to the imperial couple. They underwent three days of training, including how to serve tea.

When Akihito and Michiko arrived at Matsushima Air Base, they were met by Eiji Kimizuka, 61, commander of the Ground SDF's Northeastern Army.

As the person in charge of the combined SDF force that was providing relief support to disaster victims in the Tohoku region, Kimizuka had special reason for wanting to welcome the imperial couple in person.

At 4:30 p.m. on March 16, the nation's television networks broadcast a prerecorded message from Akihito thanking all those who had pitched in to provide help to disaster victims.

Kimizuka was impressed when he viewed the speech on video later that night.

In his speech, Akihito read off the names of organizations that played important roles in the order of the SDF, the police, the fire department and the Japan Coast Guard.

In October 2004, after the Chuetsu earthquake in Niigata Prefecture, Akihito released a statement thanking various agencies for their help. On that occasion, he listed the SDF after the fire department and the police.

Upon reflection, Kimizuka said, "I felt that the SDF was being depended on much more than before."

Sugiyama and other Matsushima Air Base officials wanted to find a way to commemorate the visit, but Imperial Household Agency officials said a commemorative photo was out of the question.

Base officials recollected that special lacquered chopsticks had been made the previous year to mark the 50th anniversary of the Blue Impulse acrobatic flight team, which had been based there. After the imperial couple used the chopsticks for lunch, base officials planned on keeping the utensils in memory of the imperial visit.

During lunch, Michiko noticed the chopstick design of white smoke tailing from a plane on a black background and asked, "What does this represent?"

After listening to the explanation about the flight team, the imperial couple said the commemorative chopsticks were a touching gesture and thwarted the plans to keep them at the base by pocketing them when they left.

Their first stop was in Minami-Sanriku, where they were met by representatives of the local volunteer fire department, the Coast Guard, police and SDF.

Hiroyuki Kasui, 51, commander of the Maritime SDF's 1st escort flotilla, arrived by helicopter because rubble prevented boats from docking at the quay.

When Akihito thanked him for working in such hazardous conditions, Kasui said, "We could not be worried about the danger because the disaster victims were going through much worse."

Akihito asked, "What kind of difficulties did you face?"

Kasui explained that rubble washed in by the tsunami blocked roads, which left only MSDF helicopters and boats as means of reaching people waiting for help along the coast or out at sea.

Akihito again thanked Kasui for the MSDF's work. Michiko said, "Thank you for working for the disaster victims."

Kasui was imbued with the feeling that the imperial couple was speaking on behalf of all disaster victims.

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The previous installments of this series are available at:

(1): Princesses packed bath towels for evacuees using imperial villa

(2): Even Ishihara felt a sense of occasion

(3): Imperial couple's visit springs surprise on Futaba evacuees

(4): Imperial couple boned up on natural disaster details, relief work

By RYUICHI KITANO/ Senior Staff Writer
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In a prerecorded program, Emperor Akihito delivers a speech on March 16, 2011. (Provided by Imperial Household Agency)

In a prerecorded program, Emperor Akihito delivers a speech on March 16, 2011. (Provided by Imperial Household Agency)

  • In a prerecorded program, Emperor Akihito delivers a speech on March 16, 2011. (Provided by Imperial Household Agency)
  • Special lacquered chopsticks made for the 50th anniversary of the Blue Impulse acrobatic flight team (Ryuichi Kitano)

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