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Empress eases into new role with compassion, global view

Pool photo/The Yomiuri Shimbun

The Emperor and Empress talk to children at an indoor play facility in Koriyama, Fukushima Prefecture, in September 2013.

The Yomiuri ShimbunThis is the sixth and last installment in the series “New Emperor, New Era.”

“Masako-sama!”

A voice called from the roadside as a car carrying the Emperor and Empress headed for the Imperial Palace on May 1, the first day of the Reiwa era.

A 27-year-old office worker from Hiroshima, who was seeing the Empress for the first time, said with her eyes shining: “Her beautiful appearance is so impressive. I want her to take advantage of her language skills and play an active role in the field of international goodwill.”

After graduating from Harvard University, the Empress studied at the University of Tokyo, then joined the Foreign Ministry in 1987. She married into the Imperial family in 1993. Many hoped she would draw on her former career as a diplomat in her new role.

The year after their marriage, the Imperial couple, then the crown prince and princess, visited four countries in the Middle East, where she communicated with local people without the help of an interpreter.

During a visit to a children’s hospital in New Zealand in 2002, she encouraged a young girl who had been hospitalized for a long time with tuberculosis by kissing her on the cheek. This natural act, which also showed the Empress’ familiarity with foreign cultures, added a graceful touch to the Emperor’s international goodwill activities.

In the early years after her marriage, the Empress would sometimes present her broad insights into international affairs at press conferences. However, she began receiving treatment in December 2003, and there have been no opportunities for her to speak directly to the people since a press conference in 2002.

The Empress has expressed her thoughts and feelings candidly during her gradually increasing public duties. In January 2010, at a memorial ceremony to mark the 15th anniversary of the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake, she wiped away tears with a handkerchief as she felt the profound sadness of the representatives of bereaved family members.

The following year, when she visited areas affected by the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, she stroked the arm of a mother who lost her daughter in the tsunami and tearfully expressed her understanding of the woman’s suffering.

In December 2017, she attended an essay award ceremony during a special week for people with disabilities. An elementary schoolgirl read out her essay that described her days with her family while caring for her younger brother with Down syndrome.

The Empress listened to the essay on the stage with tears in her eyes, and walking over to the girl, said, “I can see how close and friendly you are with your brother.”

The girl’s father felt that the Empress had understood the feelings of the family.

Regarding the episode, an aide to the Empress said: “She has suffered herself. Therefore, when she sheds tears, people can feel her desire to be close to people in distress.”

The Empress’ natural behavior eased the suffering of people in areas that were devastated by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

In September 2013, she visited an indoor play facility for children in Kori- yama, Fukushima Prefecture, who were not allowed to play outdoors due to the aftereffects of the accidents at the nuclear plant. Wearing a suit, the Empress jumped on a large air mattress with the children for three minutes, telling them how great they were at jumping.

When the Emperor passed an explanation panel during the visit, she called out to stop him.

Shintaro Kikuchi, 48, a nonprofit organization director who served as the guide for the Imperial couple, had known her only through weekly magazines and TV variety shows.

“My impression of her changed after we met. She’s bright and cheerful, and the children spent their time with her naturally,” he explained, reflecting back.

On May 8, the Empress attended an Imperial ceremony related to the enthronement of the Emperor at the Kyuchu Sanden three sanctuaries in the Imperial Palace. It was the first time in 16½ years that she wore heavy, ancient-style attire and visited the three sanctuaries.

Some people who have met the Empress at welfare facilities or in disaster-struck areas have said they hope she will act naturally.

At a press conference this year, the Emperor expressed his wishes for the Empress, who is slowly exploring ways she can become active, saying, “I’d be very glad if she can find good activities that suit her in the future.”Speech

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