Apart from some miracle rescues, Japan has seen little good news in the month since catastrophe struck. Thousands of bodies have yet to be recovered, hundreds of thousands are homeless, the nuclear crisis lurches on and the government response, while industrious, has been less than fully effective. There is one bright spot, however: Japan's monarchy at 2,500 years, the oldest in the world has been shaken, at least temporarily, out of its cloistered existence.
On March 16, five days after the earthquake and tsunami hit, Emperor Akihito appeared on TV to address the nation. "I am deeply pained by the news of the affected areas, and now the situation of the nuclear plant is one which we must be vigilant about," Akihito said in what was for him unusually direct language without the arcane formality of court speech. "Those who were affected by the earthquake must not lose hope and [must] look after their health and survive tomorrow onward."
To non-Japanese, his words may seem a small, even banal, gesture; indeed, the speech was just five minutes long and prerecorded. Yet it was the first time Akihito, who is 77, had spoken directly to his people after a natural disaster. (After the devastating Kobe quake of 1995, which killed more than 6,400 people, Akihito merely issued a written statement.) Many Japanese watching him on TV, especially older people normally more respectful of the monarchy, found his remarks genuinely comforting.
More importantly, the speech set the tone for a series of unprecedented royal efforts to try to ease the suffering of the nearly 160,000 survivors living in makeshift evacuation centers scattered across the country's northeast and in Tokyo's sprawling metropolis. On March 26, the staff bathhouse at the Nasu Imperial Villa, the imperial family's summer retreat in central Tochigi prefecture, was opened to evacuees taking refuge nearby. Normally reserved for royal personnel, the spalike baths have proved a welcome relief to those who fled from areas near the crippled nuclear power facility in neighboring Fukushima prefecture. It was the first time a royal property had been made available to the public in this way. "The bath helps you forget you are an evacuee even if it's just for a short moment," one woman told local reporters.
Foodstuffs from the royal farms have been donated to evacuation centers in the hard-hit areas where supplies are scarce. And Akihito's residence in the Imperial Palace in Tokyo a moated 120-hectare fortress-like enclave surrounded by 8-m-high walls in the heart of the capital was cutting its electricity for two hours daily, using flashlights and candles instead of electric lights. It was a show of solidarity with Tokyo residents during power rationing after the Fukushima power plant, which serves the metropolitan area, became inoperable.
The visits by Akihito and Empress Michiko to evacuation centers in Tokyo on March 30 and in nearby Saitama prefecture last Friday have also struck a resonating chord. Dressed humbly in casual wear and sitting on bended knees to be at eye level with the evacuees, the imperial couple spoke encouraging words to the many who had lost their homes and family members. "I couldn't talk with them very well because I was nervous, but I felt they were really concerned about us," said Kenji Ukito, an evacuee from an area near the Fukushima plant. "I was very grateful." A spokesperson for the Imperial Household Agency said the couple is keen to visit the ravaged areas in the northeast but they are concerned the visit would be an inconvenience for the local residents. Preparations appear to be under way nevertheless. Crown Prince Naruhito and his wife Princess Masako, who keeps a particularly low profile because of ill health, also visited an evacuation center in Tokyo last Wednesday.
It is impossible to imagine Akihito's father doing anything similar. Emperor Hirohito was regarded by the Japanese as a demigod, a status he had to renounce in 1946 after Japan's defeat in World War II and under the terms of a new constitution written under U.S. supervision. The first time the public heard Hirohito's voice was during his radio broadcast in 1945 accepting the terms of surrender. In 1989, following his father's death, when Akihito ascended the Chrysanthemum Throne as its 125th Emperor at age 55, he had already been long groomed to follow the new Western-style constitutional monarchy.
While the Emperor is a "symbol of the state and of the unity of the people" and is the chief priest of Japan's indigenous Shinto faith, he has no political power and his office is tightly controlled by the Imperial Household Agency, a conservative 1,500-member bureaucracy that governs royal affairs. Experts say that the imperial couple wants more room to maneuver. "I think the Emperor and Empress would prefer to have more freedom in their daily lives and interaction with the people," says Toshiya Matsuzaki, a veteran journalist who has reported on the royals for 50 years. "A large number of Japanese people want an imperial family they can feel close to."
Over the years, polls have revealed indifference or mixed views on the royal role. Some younger Japanese say it is irrelevant and that the family is a relic from the past. While Akihito himself has been largely beyond criticism, opinion even about him wavered online before his March 16 speech. Yoko Hasegawa, a Japanese linguistics professor at the University of California, Berkeley, followed the comments made on a chat window during live broadcasts by NHK, Japan's public broadcaster. "Before the speech there were many negative comments," she notes. "One person wrote, 'They've already evacuated to the Kansai [district] or overseas,' while another wrote, 'They don't care because they have a nuclear shelter in the palace.'" Then the speech took place and there was only praise. Still, says Hasegawa, a quicker response was probably needed: "The timing of the broadcast was a little belated ... but he seemed to satisfy the Japanese people."
Will the imperial family's engagement with the people last? The public certainly hopes so. But if nothing else, the imperial family's efforts to support the survivors and encourage the nation during these troubled weeks have highlighted their place as a rock of stability in a nation besieged by political infighting the country has had five Prime Ministers in five years and prolonged economic stagnation. "Wars and catastrophes are when decorative monarchs shine or fade," wrote commentator Monica Hesse in the Washington Post. For Japan's royals, it is now their chance to shine.