The Imperial Family in the Era of COVID-19: Staying Healthy and Informed

Society Imperial Family

Imperial Masks in Public

Some members of European royal families, including Prince Charles of Wales and Prince Albert II of Monaco, have been infected with COVID-19. At present, fortunately, none of the members of the imperial family in Japan have been infected with the virus.

On March 31, the former Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko, now known as emperor emeritus and empress emerita, wore masks as they traveled by car to the Takanawa Imperial Residence, greeted by onlookers along the way.

The emperor emeritus and empress emerita travel past onlookers on the way to the Takanawa Imperial Residence.
The emperor emeritus and empress emerita travel past onlookers on the way to the Takanawa Imperial Residence.

The Imperial Household Agency as well is making a concerted effort to prevent infection among members of its staff, as well as the imperial family.

IHA staff meet with and provide services to members of the family; also on duty are the Imperial Guard, who provide security. These personnel are wearing masks and avoiding close contact with the imperial family, and staff are also shifting to telework and staggered work shifts. Above all, efforts are being made to prevent any transmission of the virus.

It is unusual for members of the imperial family to wear masks in public, concealing their faces from the public.
It is unusual for members of the imperial family to wear masks in public, concealing their faces from the public.

The Rikkōshi-no-Rei ceremonies to proclaim Crown Prince Akishino’s rise to first in line to the throne, to be held on April 19, has been scaled back from 350 to 50 participants, and the Kyūchū-Kyōen-no-Gi banquets originally scheduled for April 21 were cancelled. These are some examples of measures taken to reduce the number of visitors to the Imperial Palace so as to prevent family members from coming into contact with too many people.

At the Jinmu-Tennō-sai ceremony held on April 3, Emperor Naruhito addressed volunteers at the Three Imperial Palace Sanctuaries. All the assembled participants wore masks and conversed with the emperor at a distance. The decision was also made to not have the participants shout the traditional three banzai cheers, to prevent the potential spread of droplets that can accompany loud speech. In many ways like these, efforts are being made to adjust ceremonies so that the imperial family can still interact with the public.

Amid the Spread of COVID-19

Princess Aiko on the day of her high school graduation.
Princess Aiko on the day of her high school graduation.

Amid the current global pandemic, the daughter of the Emperor and Empress, Princess Aiko, graduated on March 22 from Gakushūin Girl’s Senior High School. The emperor and empress marked the occasion with the following remarks:

“With the spread of the novel coronavirus, our thoughts are on the difficulties and suffering experienced by so many people in Japan and around the world. Our heartfelt hope is that the spread of this virus will come to an end as soon as possible.”

Infectious diseases have always been a part of the history of Japan, just as in all other countries. Over the centuries, some emperors succumbed to epidemics of such diseases as smallpox, dysentery, and measles. At times of the outbreaks of such diseases, the reigning emperor would pray for the wave of infection to subside.

In the 1520s, during the Warring States period, Emperor Go-Kashiwabara (r. 1500–1526) wrote the Heart Sutra out of concern for the outbreak of smallpox that was ravaging Kyoto at the time. He offered his calligraphy to the temple Ninnaji and prayed at various temples for the well-being of the people. His son, who became Emperor Go-Nara (r. 1526–57), is known for having the same sutra written in gold letters and attaching his own postscript expressing his feelings of helplessness.

On August 7, 2016, the day before Emperor Akhito conveyed his wish to abdicate in a publicly broadcast video message, Emperor Naruhito (then the crown prince) visited Aichi Prefecture to view Emperor Go-Nara’s Heart Sutra, now kept in the Iwase Bunko Library.

The following year he also mentioned the sutra at the press conference held on his birthday: Some of Emperor Go-Nara’s Heart Sutras, written in gold paint on dark blue paper, still remain today in collections other than that of Iwase Bunko Library, he noted. “There is, however, only one on which the thoughts of the Emperor himself are recorded in a postscript, which mentions that, as both mother and father to the people, it pained his heart to be unable to reach out with benevolence. . . . Keeping these deeds of my predecessors in mind, I would like to continue to think of the people and pray for them, and just as Their Majesties do, always be close to the people in their thoughts, and share in their joys and sorrows.”

Emperor Naruhito and Empress Masako at the Imperial Palace on February 23, the emperor’s birthday.
Emperor Naruhito and Empress Masako at the Imperial Palace on February 23, the emperor’s birthday.

Emperor Naruhito Staying Informed

On March 31, Emperor Naruhito met with Prime Minister Abe Shinzō to receive information about the spread of COVID-19. The emperor and empress were also scheduled to be briefed on April 6 by the chair of the government’s expert panel on the response to the pandemic.

The imperial couple are eager to ascertain the situation regarding the affected areas and individuals, their primary concern up to now. Based on the situation facing the nation, Emperor Naruhito wants to respond to the needs of the people. This requires members of the imperial family to remain healthy—which drives the efforts being made by the Imperial Household Agency to avoid the spread of infection.

(Originally published in Japanese on FNN’s Prime Online on April 2, 2020. Written by Fuji TV News Analyst Hashimoto Satoshi. Translated by Nippon.com.)

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