Photo/Illutration Emperor Naruhito and Empress Masako speak with doctors and nurses at Japanese Red Cross Society-affiliated hospitals around Japan using a videoconference system on Nov. 18. (Provided by Imperial Household Agency)

With the novel coronavirus pandemic barring direct engagement with people, Emperor Naruhito and Empress Masako are switching their interactions with the public in a manner picture-perfect for the pandemic.

On Nov. 18, the imperial couple held a videoconference with health care workers at various hospitals around Japan dealing with the pandemic.

From the Akasaka Imperial Residence in Tokyo, Naruhito and Masako watched and conversed with doctors and nurses in such areas as northern Hokkaido and Okinawa Prefecture in the south using a 50-inch monitor.

Imperial Household Agency officials said it was the first time the emperor and empress used an online system to interact with the public.

The session began with Yukio Honma, head of the Japanese Red Cross Medical Center, based in Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward. He explained how his hospital was treating COVID-19 patients. The medical center is one of the medical institutions designated specifically to handle the novel coronavirus.

According to Hiroki Tomita, a vice president of the Japanese Red Cross Society, Naruhito told Masako that the display gave him the impression those he was speaking to were right in front of him.

Doctors and nurses from three hospitals affiliated with the Japanese Red Cross Society spoke with the imperial couple through the videoconferencing system. The hospitals were located in Hokkaido, Fukushima Prefecture and Okinawa.

The imperial couple expressed their deep respect for the various activities carried out so far by the health care professionals. Masako also said she was worried about the difficulties facing those working on the front lines of the pandemic.

Imperial Household Agency officials said the imperial couple had long indicated their desire to thank those treating COVID-19 patients. But as having them visit a hospital in person would have burdened the staff, it was decided to hold the videoconference.

Initially, agency officials were less than enthusiastic about using online systems. with one high-ranking official saying, “It is important for the emperor and empress to directly meet with and talk to people to ensure that their thoughts are passed on." 

But the prolonged pandemic has led to the cancellation of a wide range of activities attended by the imperial couple, including annual events such as the National Arbor Day Festival and the National Sports Festival.

Naruhito also postponed a planned visit to Britain that would have been his first overseas trip since ascending the Chrysanthemum Throne.

With few opportunities to interact with the public, the decision was made to go online.

But various issues have to be overcome to expand such interactions.

For one thing, the other party must have a sufficient internet environment to allow for videoconferences, including proper computer security measures.

“We will try various ways to use online systems after determining its effectiveness in various situations and also to ensure that an excessive burden is not placed on the other party,” a high-ranking agency official said. 

Hideya Kawanishi, an associate professor of history at Nagoya University who has conducted research on the imperial system, welcomed the introduction of online technology for the imperial couple.

He pointed out that during the Heisei Era (1989-2019), Emperor Emeritus Akihito and Empress Emerita Michiko were considered to have a personal connection with the public because of their emphasis on going to where people were.

Kawanishi said Naruhito and Masako could create a new catalyst for engaging with the public through the use of online systems to reach out to them.

(This article was written by Tatsuro Sugiura and Aya Nagatani.)