Emperor Akihito gives message of comfort in televised address

March 16, 2011

Emperor Akihito spoke to his nation Wednesday — a somber televised message that demonstrated how deeply Japan has been shattered by the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis.

Akihito gives annual New Year’s greetings. He gives speeches at various ceremonial events. He has visited with survivors of the 1995 Kobe earthquake. But Wednesday was the first time Akihito gave a televised national address at a time of crisis, and for some it recalled a speech by the last emperor, his father, at another defining moment in Japan’s history.

Wearing a dark suit, Akihito on Wednesday spoke for about six minutes from a reception room at the Imperial Palace.

“We don’t know the number of victims, but I pray that every single person can be saved,” he said. “I am deeply concerned about the nuclear situation and hope it will be resolved.

He spoke as Japan reckoned with a deep sense of collective suffering and fear, and as it raced to stabilize damaged nuclear power plants. The National Police Agency released updated numbers of the dead and missing Wednesday afternoon: 3,771 confirmed fatalities, 8,181 officially missing. The list of those killed in the tragedy is expected ultimately to top 10,000.

Nearly 450,000 people are believed to be displaced from their homes in the northern coastal regions and crammed into shelters. Many are still waiting for resources and aid to reach them.

Snow and cold conditions Wednesday have only compounded delivery issues, and Thursday’s forecast looks similarly dire.

Akihito’s appearance on television in some respects evoked the radio speech his father, Emperor Hirohito, gave in 1945 to tell the people Japan was surrendering to Allied forces. But it was remarkably different in one important aspect — everyone understood Akihito.

When Hirohito spoke, few could understand him because he used a language so formal that it was unintelligible to everyday people.

The Japanese who heard that speech retain a vivid memory of it.

“I was at my grandfather’s home, and all the village people came to my grandfather’s home because he was the only one who had a radio,” said Teruo Kobayashi, retired professor of political science at Elmira College in New York. “I was 13 years old. Of course I didn’t know what he was talking about. He had a strange voice and he was making the speech in very special Japanese dialect just for the emperor. I don’t think anyone in the village understood what he was talking about. After he spoke, a broadcaster summed up what the emperor said, and that’s when everyone understood.”

What Hirohito said was that Japan had lost the war. “The war situation has developed not necessarily to Japan’s advantage,” he said. And he mentioned the atomic bomb: “Moreover, the enemy has begun to employ a new and most cruel bomb.”

But the most remarkable fact for Japanese at that time was that their emperor had spoken to them. They had not heard his voice before. In fact, they believed him to be a god. One of the U.S. conditions at the end of the war was that Hirohito renounce his divinity.

Akihito gives a variety of ceremonial remarks, but his speech captured the national crisis.

“This is the symbolic head of the country saying we have to band together,” said Gerald Curtis, professor of political science at Columbia University. “The significance of this speech, is ... that this is a national calamity, not a regional problem. The whole country has to mobilize itself, to band together, with the same spirit to rebuild the country that it had after the war. That’s the message.”

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