Empress dedicated to the Emperor’s welfare

The Empress celebrates her 80th birthday on Monday. Since her wedding to the Emperor in 1959, the Empress has supported him in both her public and private capacities. Determined to place themselves in the service of the public, the Imperial couple have dedicated themselves to working to help disadvantaged people.

The Yomiuri Shimbun interviewed Makoto Watanabe, who served as grand chamberlain at the Imperial Household Agency for more than 10 years. He is currently serving as an adviser to the agency.

The following is a summary of his remarks made during the interview:

After an informal decision was made about his marriage with the Empress, the Emperor composed a poem that read:

Repeating a conversation with her Makes me realise

A window has been made in my heart

I believe the Empress is the Emperor's best supporter. Firstly, the Emperor draws up major plans [related to his duties] as a symbol of the unity of people, including visits to onetime battlegrounds aimed at consoling the souls of the deceased and trips to disaster-stricken areas aimed at expressing sympathy to victims. In consultation with the Empress, he has put these plans into action.

The Empress has a good feel for language. By using her excellent linguistic sensitivity, she has played a role in offering explanations about the duties fulfilled by the Emperor.

The Empress once said, "I would like the Imperial family to be 'inori' (prayer)." This remark many well describe her wish to see the Imperial family pray for the good of the people at all times.

In fact, the Empress offers words of encouragement and comfort for people at any place she visits. In 1995, the Empress visited areas hit by the Great Hanshin Earthquake some time after the disaster. During a bus ride along a quake-stricken area, she made her hand into a fist, while looking through the window. Then she drew it toward her chest - apparently not deliberately. Her gesture heartened everyone there.

During a visit to Toronto in 2009, the Empress visited a local pediatric hospital, where she sang a Japanese nursery song for the children.

Her expression of honest feelings can relax people. I believe this has served to give the Emperor's activities a good measure of breadth.

I have frequently felt that the Empress is firmly determined to protect the Emperor. This was evident, for example, in her action taken at the venue for the 1992 National Athletic Meet in Yamagata. A man hurled a smoke bomb toward the Imperial couple during the opening ceremony. Instantly, she tried to shield the Emperor with her right hand. The smoke bomb dropped to the ground rather far away from the couple. As it turned out, the incident did not create any major trouble.

Her spur-of-the-moment behaviour served as another reminder of her dedication to the Emperor. A person's true character reveals itself in an emergency.

An emergency training exercise has been held at the Imperial Palace every year. The Empress has participated in the drill quite earnestly. She will never be satisfied if a disaster drill is only intended to follow the instructions given in a manual.

I once thought to myself, "What made her so serious about joining such a drill?" Then I realised she was genuinely concerned about how to protect the Emperor in an emergency.

The Empress has always paid close attention to each member of the Imperial family, hoping to ensure all can live all the more happily.

Few Japanese fathers talk frequently with their sons. The Emperor, however, has talks with Crown Prince Naruhito and Prince Akishino every month. I believe this has been made possible through the help of the Empress.

Meanwhile, the Empress is also trying to convey her thoughts and feelings to her grandchildren, including Princess Mako, the elder daughter of Prince Akishino. One day, the Empress learned Princess Mako was reading a book depicting the life of Japanese settlers in prewar Manchuria in China. The Empress and her granddaughter visited a farming family in the cultivated land in the town of Nasu in Tochigi Prefecture. The land had been cultivated by the people who returned from Manchuria after the end of World War II. Those villagers had settled in Manchuria until the end of the war.

Despite her age-associated neck, arm and lower-back pains, the Empress continues to perform various Imperial rituals. Living up to this task apparently weighs on her. For instance, one peculiar feature of such rituals is a traditional coiffure called "osuberakashi" - the hair gathered so as to hang down from the back of the head. Attending Imperial ceremonies also entails wearing heavy costumes.

Procedures to be completed in Imperial rituals have been passed on in writing for centuries. However, reading such written instructions is not enough to observe such protocols. Someone must practice what has been so instructed, a task essential for passing on such knowledge and expertise to future generations of the Imperial family.

The Empress continues to do so. This shows her belief that she is the one who must fulfil that task. I only hope she will not push herself too hard in this endeavour.

Silk-raising activities at the Imperial Palace were restored during the Meiji era (1868-1912). Successive empresses have overseen the silk-raising.

In fact, the Empress has played a part in passing on ancient Japanese cultural assets. Raw silk obtained from koishimaru, an species indigenous to our nation, was used to help repair treasures stored at the Shosoin Treasure House in Nara.

The Empress raises silkworms with great affection. I presume her day-to-day life at the Imperial Palace is bound by rigid regulations. Her affectionate treatment of silkworms seems to show she is able to find a moment of delight in her restricted life.