Imperial couple 'beside themselves with worry' at the outset

July 13, 2012


In his seven years as grand steward of the Imperial Household Agency, Shingo Haketa has an abiding memory of Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko: Their heartfelt concern for victims of the Great East Japan Earthquake.

Haketa, 70, said that Akihito, through the example he set in his daily activities, personified the postwar constitutional requirement that the emperor serve as symbol of the nation.

Haketa, recently retired, granted his first post-retirement interview to The Asahi Shimbun.

Excerpts follow:

Q: During your last news conference as grand steward you said that your most memorable recollection of that period concerned the visits by the emperor and empress after last year's earthquake and tsunami. Could you elaborate?

Haketa: Immediately after the March 11, 2011, disaster, both the emperor and empress were beside themselves with worry about the victims.

They said that they wanted to visit the disaster victims as soon as possible. But at the same time, they did not want to create a further burden on local officials who were very busy providing assistance to the victims and starting the rebuilding process.

Based on that sentiment, the rather unusual step was taken of first releasing a video message by Emperor Akihito in which he expressed his concerns for the victims.

The plan to begin the visits from the evacuation centers that had been set up in the Tokyo metropolitan area, and then move to neighboring prefectures before visiting the three prefectures in the Tohoku region that were hardest hit, was also made based on the wishes of the emperor and empress.

Q: What stands out in your mind from that time?

A: On April 27, 2011, when they arrived at Minami-Sanriku, Miyagi Prefecture, the imperial couple on two occasions silently bowed in prayer for the victims in the direction of the community that had been devastated. The first time was immediately after their arrival and the second occasion was just before they were to depart from an evacuation center where they had met with disaster victims.

I was deeply moved by the sight of the imperial couple expressing their emotions toward the disaster victims.

Q: What was your impression of the manner in which they made the visit?

A: Thinking of how sad the victims must be, the imperial couple knelt on the floor to speak with the victims. By sharing in their sorrow, they were able to share in their feelings. We received letters from disaster victims who said they were given the courage to once again stand up and move forward.

Q: Another memorable trip occurred in 2005 when they visited Saipan to pay their respects to those who died during World War II. Can you tell us about that?

A: One former solider who survived the fighting crawled on the sand and spoke about the events of 60 years ago as though it was yesterday. I could easily tell by the way the imperial couple were listening to the account that they were imagining what had occurred during the war.

Q: Last autumn, you made a proposal to allow female members of the imperial family who marry commoners to retain their status. You argued that problems could arise if the number of imperial family members decreased as a result of marriages with commoners.

That proposal led to hearings by the central government about allowing female members to retain their status. What was behind your proposal?

A: Concerns about the future of the imperial family will not be resolved unless solutions are found to the issue of imperial succession and how to deal with the declining number of imperial family members.

While it is a good thing to make a start in that direction based on the understanding of the importance of the issue, as someone who was once in the Imperial Household Agency, I should not say what my opinion is about how the structure will change. I can only watch over the situation while being concerned.

Q: This spring you announced that, based on the wishes of the imperial couple, consideration was being given to switching to cremation rather than burial when the time comes. What was behind that move?

A: I was told of the intentions of the imperial couple quite a while back. Perhaps it would have been better if the announcement was made earlier, but that was difficult because of the Great East Japan Earthquake and the emperor's own illness.

Q: Can you explain a statement you made at a news conference about the emperor's status and activities being one and the same?

A: When I was talking about how the burden of public duties could be reduced, the emperor said, "The status as symbol and the activities based on that status are inseparable."

Under the Constitution, the emperor is "the symbol of the state and of the unity of the people." His status is defined as "deriving from his position from the will of the people with whom resides sovereign power."

Through his daily activities, the emperor has carved out a clear role as the nation's symbol of unity.

I believe the public is moved and encouraged by the wholehearted efforts of the emperor to work on behalf of the nation and the people, and that has led to the public holding feelings of respect toward the imperial family.

Q: Given the fact the emperor is now 78, there are increasing concerns about his health. How to reduce the burden placed on him is also an important issue, isn't it?

A: Not only is the emperor currently recuperating from illness, but limitations due to his advanced age cannot be avoided.

The key issues now concern official duties carried out by the emperor as a symbol within a society that has an aging population as well as how the imperial succession issue is resolved.

I am worried about whether it will be possible for the emperor to keep up the same level of activities after he turns 80.

(Shingo Haketa was interviewed by Ryuichi Kitano.)

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Shingo Haketa, former grand steward of the Imperial Household Agency (Ryuichi Kitano)

Shingo Haketa, former grand steward of the Imperial Household Agency (Ryuichi Kitano)

  • Shingo Haketa, former grand steward of the Imperial Household Agency (Ryuichi Kitano)
  • Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko pray for victims of the disaster during a visit to Minami-Sanriku, Miyagi Prefecture, in April 2011. (Pool)

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