Photo/Illutration Caroline Kennedy, then U.S. ambassador to Japan, heads to the Imperial Palace to present her credentials to the emperor in November 2013. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

The novel coronavirus pandemic has put newly appointed ambassadors to Japan in limbo and prevented top Japanese envoys from taking on their assignments overseas.

Ambassadors to Japan from five countries, including Tonga, have already arrived here to take up their new posts. But they have been unable to present their credentials to Emperor Naruhito because of the pandemic and are still technically “next” ambassadors to Japan.

The top diplomats from Tonga and Rwanda were originally scheduled to head to the Imperial Palace in horse-drawn carriages to attend a ceremony to present their credentials from their heads of state to the emperor on April 9.

However, the Imperial Household Agency announced the postponement of the event on April 8.

“At the ceremony, new ambassadors and the emperor shake hands and converse, and many people fill the streets to see the carriages,” Yasuhiko Nishimura, who heads the agency, said at a news conference. “So, it’s inappropriate to hold the ceremony under the state of emergency (over the pandemic).”

The schedule for the ceremony for new ambassadors from East Timor, Mali and Tanzania has not been decided, either.

According to the Foreign Ministry, the Japanese government formally recognizes such diplomats as ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary only after they hand over their credentials from their heads of state to the emperor.

The five new ambassadors to Japan already submitted copies of their credentials to the ministry, so they have started their diplomatic activities even though they are still regarded as “next” ambassadors.

Many Foreign Ministry personnel, including Japanese ambassadors, have also been unable to perform their new duties as ordered by the ministry.

The Cabinet chose Japan’s new ambassadors to Chile and Burkina Faso in West Africa at an April 17 meeting. But an attestation ceremony that was scheduled to take place at the Imperial Palace on April 22 was canceled.

Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi handed written letters of appointment to the new ambassadors at his office.

Since they could not receive any words from Naruhito, Motegi reportedly told them, “I’m sorry, but this is from me, (not the emperor).”

Attestation by the emperor, which is necessary for ambassadorial appointments, was conducted separately so that they could take their posts without attending the ceremony.

However, several new ambassadors have been stuck in Japan because of travel restrictions and suspensions of regular flights.

Ministry sources said several dozen staff members cannot go to Japan’s diplomatic missions abroad or return to Japan even though they have been ordered to do so.

“So far, there’s been no major impact on their duties,” a senior ministry official said.

But some in the ministry are starting to voice concerns over the possible effects on the personnel reshuffle in summer.

(This article was written by Tatsuya Sato and Tatsuro Sugiura.)