I arrived in Japan in the summer of 1990, otherwise known as Heisei 2 nen, intending to be here one year. Twenty-nine years later, I remain in this great country, having lived, studied, worked, and raised a family here. As such, my near-three decades here corresponds almost exactly to the Heisei Era, which began in 1989, and finished April 30 this year.
As a specialist on Japanese politics and foreign policy, I have watched closely the role of the Imperial Family and specifically the Emperor and Empress. I have also had the privilege of attending events with the Imperial Family and their Majesties.
My respect for them, however, grew astronomically following the many natural disasters that rocked Japan during these past decades. As someone who experienced the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake in January 1995 as a graduate student at Kobe University, first as a victim and later as a volunteer, I was especially impressed with how quickly Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko, who was of commoner background, arrived on the scene to offer their support and heartfelt condolences.
It was the biggest disaster to hit Japan since the 1959 Ise Bay Typhoon, which killed more than 5,000 people and caught everyone by surprise, especially the central government.
Scenes of the Imperial Couple kneeling on the floor of school gymnasiums that were serving as shelters to speak with survivors, and sharing tears with them while visiting the disaster-struck areas, are still viewable on the internet and truly emotional to watch almost 25 years later. Assisting in these shelters was one of my responsibilities, and their arrival was literally like a breath of fresh air.
In 2011, I was in a better position to help respond at a larger level to a natural disaster as the political advisor to the United States Marine Corps, which served as the Forward Command Element of U.S. Forces Japan, following the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami. Within minutes after the news of the quake, we began to prepare the response on the assumption that such a large-scale disaster would necessitate our assistance. (RELATED ARTICLE: Tohoku in My Memory: Recollections on Operation Tomodachi)
The U.S.-Japan coordination cell at Camp Sendai in Miyagi Prefecture, where I was sent, was officially set up in the afternoon of March 15, although various forms of assistance and coordination were already underway. Meetings with Sendai Airport officials, for example, took place that morning, and Lieutenant General Kenneth J. Glueck Jr. and his entire leadership team arrived from Okinawa in the afternoon to pay their respects to newly-designated Commanding General of the Joint Task Force-Tohoku, Lt. Gen. Eiji Kimizuka, pledge their support, and share ideas and concepts of operations.
Fortunately, it was not the first time for these two great leaders to meet. They had worked together in Okinawa seven years earlier when they each commanded brigades there, and the friendship was restarted immediately.
Each day began with a morning report (meeting) and ended with an evening one, at 8 A.M. and 8 P.M., respectively. In them, information was shared, questions answered, and instructions given.
At the evening session of March 16, Lt. Gen. Kimizuka told everyone about a video message the Emperor had released earlier in the day concerning the disaster. As I believe it is one of his most important ever, I invite readers to view it in full or read the text at this link.
In it, Emperor Akihito stated: “I wish to express my appreciation to the members of the Self-Defense Forces, the police, the fire department, the Japan Coast Guard, and other central and local governments and related institutions, as well as people who have come from overseas for relief operations and the members of various domestic relief organizations, for engaging in relief activity round the clock, defying the danger of recurring aftershocks. I wish to express my deepest gratitude to them.”
Lt. Gen. Kimizuka was highly impressed and grateful for the kind words about the recognition bestowed on the Self-Defense Forces (SDF), as more than 100,000 had been mobilized from all around the country for the relief efforts.
He was not the only one. All 102 members of the staff assembled in the operation center, including those of us from the U.S. military who knew that the SDF did not always get the respect they deserved, were deeply moved as well. (RELATED ARTICLE: Almost All Japanese Look Favorably at the JSDF, So Why Do We Keep the Forces in Limbo?)
A newspaper story about the Emperor’s message was posted in the main hallway near our coordination cell. The part above about the SDF, which was the first time the Emperor thanked the SDF in a public speech, was highlighted.
Over the course of the past eight years since the disaster, Emperor Akihiko and Empress Michiko have visited the Tohoku region countless times to express their concern about the victims of the disaster and to see how the recovery is proceeding. As someone who has maintained a close relationship with the area over these years, I follow their efforts with great interest and respect. (RELATED ARTICLE: [HEISEI IN PICTURES] In Disasters, Caring for the Afflicted and Never Giving Up Hope)
Emperor Akihiko has truly embodied the role of “symbol of the State and of the unity of the people,” as stipulated in Article 1 of the 1947 Constitution, and has come to be loved by the people. This is most visible in his travels around the country with Empress Michiko, the numerous ceremonies he performs in, and the regular openings of the Imperial Palace to receive New Year’s and birthday greetings. (RELATED ARTICLE: Japan’s Monarchy of the Masses)
As someone who has been in Japan during almost the entire Heisei Era, I wish to join the Japanese people in saying “thank you” to the Emperor and Empress for their service to the country and to the world.
Author: Robert Eldridge, Ph.D.
Dr. Eldridge is the author, editor, or translator of some 80 books on United States-Japan relations, including Megaquake, and served as the political advisor for U.S. Forces in Sendai during the Great East Japan Earthquake.