Photo/IllutrationChieko Suemori talks about her best friend, Empress Emerita Michiko, in Hachimantai, Iwate Prefecture, on May 15. (Yudai Ogata)

  • Photo/Illustraion

HACHIMANTAI, Iwate Prefecture--Michiko’s final days as empress were full of concerns and she was impressed by the public’s intense interest in the new era name, according to her best friend.

“I was pleased to know so many people had such an interest in (the Japanese traditional era name),” Michiko told Chieko Suemori of Hachimantai, Iwate Prefecture, during a mid-April phone call.

Michiko sounded particularly surprised that young people showed interest when the new era name Reiwa was announced on April 1.

Suemori, a 78-year-old editor of picture books, talked to Michiko on the morning of April 17, shortly before Michiko left for Ise Jingu shrine in Mie Prefecture to attend a ceremony for Emperor Akihito’s abdication that occurred later that month.

“I hope I can manage to carry out my duties for two more weeks,” Michiko, 84, told Suemori.

Suemori said she had never seen Michiko show any sign of weakness, but during the call, the then empress told her, "I don't know if I can go on," hinting of her hectic schedule and the effects on her physical strength.

The imperial couple had worked almost without a full day off since August 2016, when Akihito, now emperor emeritus, expressed his will to abdicate to his son, then Crown Prince Naruhito.

Akihito’s health was clearly declining because of his packed schedule, according to an aide.

Suemori said she thinks that Michiko also had accumulated “built-up fatigue in her body because she had continuously supported the emperor emeritus.”

Suemori has enjoyed a long relationship with the empress emerita and published a book compiling texts of Michiko’s lectures. Suemori was also the publisher when Michiko translated a collection of poems by famed Japanese poet Michio Mado into English.

After the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami hit the Tohoku region, Suemori launched a movement to send picture books to children in the disaster-stricken area.

Michiko was one of her supporters for the project. She donated 19 books to the cause, including a children’s story that she loved to read when she was little: “Denden mushi no kanashimi” (Sorrow of a snail) written by Nankichi Niimi.

When Suemori talked to Michiko on the phone again in mid-May, close to a month had passed since Akihito’s abdication.

"I want to see you again," Michiko said, sounding cheerful. Suemori was relieved.

Suemori said she hopes from now her best friend will “enjoy reading her favorite books and take it easy.”