Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko view bonsai miniature potted trees in the Omichi Garden at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo. (Video provided by the Imperial Household Agency)

Empress Michiko marked her 83rd birthday on Oct. 20 by expressing relief that Emperor Akihito will finally enjoy peaceful times after he abdicates the Chrysanthemum Throne.

“His Majesty, after having devoted Himself for so many years to pursuing the role of the Emperor as the symbol of the State, will now, in His advancing years, be able to spend some days of calm and quiet," Michiko said in her written response to questions from the media ahead of her birthday. “The prospect gives me an immeasurable sense of relief.”

The emperor, also 83, is expected to abdicate on March 31, 2019, according to government sources.

Michiko also touched upon the imperial couple’s recent visits to places across the country.

“My travels within Japan this year were made all the more touching by the thought that this could be the last time for me to be visiting these prefectures with His Majesty in an official capacity, and the beauty of each place struck me even more deeply than usual as I traveled around the country,” she said.

Michiko also mentioned the arduous efforts of atomic bomb survivors in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in relation to this year’s Nobel Peace Prize awarded to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN).

“While Japan’s position regarding nuclear weapons is complicated, I feel it is most significant that, owing to the efforts of the atomic bomb survivors in Hiroshima and Nagasaki over many long years, the world seems to have finally turned its attention to the inhumanity of nuclear weapons and the horrifying consequences once they are used,” the empress said.

"At the same time, I hope that the people of the world will take more notice that the hearts of Japan’s atomic bomb survivors have never been directed towards retaliation, which sets off a chain of more fighting, but towards the pursuit of a peaceful future.”

(This article was written by Yasuhiko Shima and Yudai Ogata.)

The following is Empress Michiko's statement to the media on the occasion of her 83rd birthday, provided by the Imperial Household Agency.

Question:

This year again, we observed various events and incidences, including the torrential rains that hit northern Kyushu and other natural disasters. In June, a special law was enacted to allow for the abdication of His Majesty the Emperor, and in September, the informal engagement of Her Imperial Highness Princess Mako was announced. Would you tell us Your thoughts and impressions as You look back on the last 12 months?

Answer:

A year and a half has gone by since the 2016 Kumamoto Earthquakes. In the past twelve months we have continued to have many earthquakes, some even as large as “less than 6” on the Japanese seismic intensity scale, as well as river floods and landslides caused by heavy torrential downpours in various parts of the country. Even as we speak, volcanic eruptions in Shinmoedake peak in Kyushu is continuing incessantly. In northern Kyushu, which was first devastated by last year’s Kumamoto Earthquakes, then again by torrential rains, many people continue to live in temporary housing. In the three prefectures of Iwate, Miyagi, and Fukushima, over 18,000 people still live in temporary housing although more than six years have elapsed since the Great East Japan Earthquake and subsequent tsunami. These matters grieves me greatly. Also in northern Kyushu, some areas were doubly hit by heavy rains after being struck by earthquakes. My heart goes out to the people in those areas who must be experiencing deep sadness, and I pray that they will not lose hope and take good care of their health in the coming cold winter months.

This year, together with His Majesty, I visited Viet Nam soon after the turn of the year. Although I have been to various parts of Asia, it was the first time for me to visit the country that I knew in my childhood as Futsuin, or French Indochina, and I headed to Vietnam recalling a line from a poem I read, probably in an elementary school textbook, that went, “Annan Shamu wa mada haruka, An Nam (Viet Nam) and Siam (Thailand) are still far away.” Through this visit, I was able to find out about the many deep connections between Viet Nam and Japan including the close friendship between Phan Boi Chau, who is known as the pioneer of Vietnamese independence movement, and a Japanese physician, as well as about the former Japanese soldiers who remained in Vietnam for a while after World War II and the families they had with their Vietnamese spouses and their children—things that we have not been told about very much. This visit was a profoundly memorable and unforgettable journey for me.

My travels within Japan this year were made all the more touching by the thought that this could be the last time for me to be visiting these prefectures with His Majesty in an official capacity, and the beauty of each place struck me even more deeply than usual as I traveled around the country. In every one of the places I visit in Japan, I would always notice the high awareness of the people, their sincerity, and their diligence which I think are unchanging national traits that go back to ancient times, but especially in recent years I feel at times that the accumulation of wisdom and experience through the ages have helped raise these traits to the level of local culture. Perhaps one example could be the massive fire which broke out in Itoigawa last December. The people there had experienced great fires in the past and were aware of the hazard of strong winds and they were also prepared for various responses to crises. It was a most unfortunate incident but, in spite the big fire and the extent of the disaster, not a single life was lost, which was remarkable.

The past year has also been an eventful one worldwide, including changes of administration in the United States and France, the formal notification by the United Kingdom to leave the European Union, and frequent terrorist attacks in different parts of the world. One news that left a deep impression on me was the appointment of Izumi Nakamitsu as the United Nations Under-Secretary-General and High Representative for Disarmament Affairs. I felt at first that the word “disarmament” sounded somewhat distant. But from what Ms. Nakamitsu has mentioned since taking office, that disarmament is also about prevention, I have come to learn that part of the work of disarmament lies in viewing disarmament not in a narrow, confined sense of “disarmament”, but from a more integrated perspective that encompasses other domains, such as the economy, society, and the environment, and preventing potential conflict in a region by, for instance, assisting with its sustainable economic growth. This made me glad and I felt that the concept would help deepen my interest in this field in the future. I pray that Ms. Nakamitsu, who has already gained substantial field experience under Ms Sadako Ogata, the former United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, will continue to stay in good health so that she will be able to carry out her duties well.

Looking back on the past twelve months, the first thing that continues to weigh on my mind would be the recovery and reconstruction of areas that have been stricken by natural and nuclear disasters. The future of the Japanese scholarship system and the considerations needed for immigrant children growing up in Japan are also matters of concern. With regards to the environment, the dramatic increase in plastic waste, and the fact that fish which have ingested microplastics have already been found in widespread areas worries me. I am also concerned about some of the small but harmful insects such as redback spiders (Latrodectus hasseltii), which have been rapidly increasing of late, and other alien species that are gradually spreading their habitat. Of these insects, the fire ant (Solenopsis invicta) is particularly venomous and dangerous, and I hope that nobody who handles cargo in ports will be stung by them.

One recent piece of news that gave me joy was the awarding of the Ramon Magsaysay Award in August to Dr. Yoshiaki Ishizawa, who, for more than 50 years, including the time of Cambodia’s period of isolation from the international community, has dedicated himself to studying, preserving and restoring the remains of Angkor Wat and to training local personnel who can engage in that work. I have great respect for Dr. Ishizawa for making a Japanese contribution to Asia by consistently working with the idea of “restoration by the Cambodian people, for the Cambodian people.”

I have also been paying close and hopeful attention, to the medical world, notably to the steady developments in the field that began with the discovery of iPS cells. I eagerly await the day that these developments will bring a hope of recovery to so many people suffering from illnesses.

The world of sport, too, saw its fair share of good news. In particular, in the World Sprint Speed Skating Championships, a Japanese woman claimed overall victory for the first time, and at long last, a Japanese track athlete broke the 10-second barrier in the men’s 100-meter dash, followed shortly by another fine record of 10.00 seconds. These and other achievements have made for a wonderfully fruitful year. The refreshing and graceful retirement press conferences given by figure skater Mao Asada, golfer Ai Miyazato, and tennis player Kimiko Date have all left strong impressions on me as well.

The game of Shogi also delighted many people this year. I was struck not only by the appearance of a fresh young professional shogi player but also by the reaction and response of the more experienced players who welcomed his emergence and took it upon themselves to nurture the young man with warmth.

I was happy to hear about the inscription of the Sacred Island of Okinoshima and Associated Sites in the Munakata Region on the UNESCO World Heritage list, and I am looking forward to visiting the shrines of Munakata Taisha in November.

The Nobel Prize season is upon us once again, and two prizes with connections to Japan were awarded this year.

The Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded to the Japanese-British novelist Kazuo Ishiguro. Although I have only read one work by Mr. Ishiguro thus far, that novel, The Remains of the Day, has left a deep and lasting impression on me. I would like to offer my heartfelt congratulations to its author.

The Nobel Peace Prize was presented to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN). While Japan’s position regarding nuclear weapons is complicated, I feel it is most significant that, owing to the efforts of the atomic bomb survivors in Hiroshima and Nagasaki over many long years, the world seems to have finally turned its attention to the inhumanity of nuclear weapons and the horrifying consequences once they are used. At the same time, I hope that the people of the world will take more notice that the hearts of Japan’s atomic bomb survivors have never been directed towards retaliation, which sets off a chain of more fighting, but towards the pursuit of a peaceful future.

Over the past year, we bade farewell to many familiar faces. They include Michiko Inukai, the physician Dr. Shigeaki Hinohara, the writers Shumon Miura and Makoto Ooka, the former yokozuna Sadanoyama, Tadayoshi Nagashima, who was the mayor of Yamakoshi village at the time of the 2004 Niigata Chuetsu Earthquake, and Akio Harada, who supported the Imperial Family as a special advisor to the Imperial Household Agency with sincerity. This year we also lost a number of authors and artists, both at home and abroad, who produced work for children for many years. Among them are Dick Bruna, the creator of Miffy, Michael Bond, known for his Paddington Bear series, Satoru Sato, the author of the Korobokkuru Monogatari series, and picture book author Yutaka Sugita.

It was regrettable that Yukinori Miyabe, who came in third place in the 1,000-meter speed skating event at the Albertville Winter Olympic Games 25 years ago, passed away at the far too young age of 48. I remember as if it were yesterday how, when we invited the Olympic medalists to the Akasaka Residence, he asked, “Would you like to try it on?” and put his bronze medal around my neck.

In October last year, His Imperial Highness Prince Mikasa passed away at the grand age of 100. He is sorely missed, but I feel truly thankful and reassured that Her Imperial Highness Princess Mikasa, even in her advanced age, continues to lovingly watch over the next generation of Imperial Family members.

Within my family, in September, the informal engagement of Mako, the older daughter of Prince and Princess Akishino, and my first grandchild whose growth I have watched over with great affection, to Mr. Kei Komuro was announced. Soon after the announcement, Mako’s younger sister, Kako, left Japan to study at the University of Leeds.

This June, our daughter Sayako succeeded Mrs. Atsuko Ikeda as the Most Sacred Priestess of Ise Grand Shrine.

Concerning His Majesty’s abdication, after much deliberation by the people, a special law was formally approved by the Diet on June 9. It means that His Majesty, after having devoted Himself for so many years to pursuing the role of the Emperor as the symbol of the State, will now, in His advancing years, be able to spend some days of calm and quiet. The prospect gives me an immeasurable sense of relief, and I am profoundly grateful to the many people who have made it possible.