Japan’s Emperor Naruhito delivered on Monday a New Year’s message to the public at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo. It was the first time the annual tradition was held in person since 2020, after the event was put on hold during the pandemic.
“I am sure you have suffered numerous hardships over these nearly three years due to the spread of the novel coronavirus and other issues,” the 62-year-old Emperor said from a balcony to about 1,500 well-wishers, who had been selected in a lottery, gathered below, according to local media. “After three years, I am truly happy to be able to celebrate the New Year here with you today.”
The Japanese royals have moved many of their activities online during the pandemic. The 2021 and 2022 New Year’s messages were delivered via video to prevent the spread of the virus. The non-virtual version in 2023 is a sign that life is starting to return to normal in Japan. The country reopened to foreign tourism in October, although it recently announced restrictions on people arriving from China, where the virus is surging.
Naruhito was joined by other mask-clad royals including his wife, Empress Masako, his daughter, Princess Aiko, and his father, the former Emperor Akihito, who abdicated in 2019. Videos circulating on social media showed those gathered outside the palace waving Japanese flags.
“A lot of Japanese are still worried about COVID, especially with Chinese travel restrictions soon to end, so seeing the [royal] family in person and hearing the Emperor speak will have given people a bit of a lift,” says Chris Harding, a senior lecturer at the University of Edinburgh and author of The Japanese: A History in Twenty Lives.
The Emperor, who was once viewed as a god-like figure, is still revered in Japan and holds symbolic significance for many Japanese people, despite wielding no political power.
But the Japanese Royal Family is less public than some other royal families. That may be slowly changing. There is speculation that Japan’s royal family may begin using social media to connect with the public. And the Imperial Household Agency, which is in charge of the family’s affairs, said in late December that it will set up a formal public relations office in April.
Harding says that Naruhito, who became Emperor in 2019, may be eager to make his mark. “The Emperor and Empress had high hopes for what they might achieve, at home and internationally, when they took up their roles in 2019. COVID came along very soon after, so I expect that, personally, they are keen to reestablish some momentum and get going again.”