Naruhito voices concern about Covid-19 impact on the vulnerable

Japan's Emperor notes rise in suicides, child abuse, domestic violence in birthday address

Japanese Emperor Naruhito has expressed worry over the indelible impact of Covid-19 on society, noting the rise in suicides among women and youth, domestic violence and child abuse.

"Perhaps due to a feeling of psychological oppression, the number of people who have taken their lives has increased," he said at a customary birthday news conference as he turned 61 yesterday. Events to mark the occasion were muted with public appearances cancelled due to Covid-19.

"I am extremely pained, and as a society we must work to prevent this," he said, offering his condolences for the many lives lost over the difficult past year.

Suicides rose for the first time in 11 years to 20,919, led by a worrisome increase in suicides among women. Police data this month also showed all-time highs in suspected domestic violence and child abuse cases last year.

But the Emperor also said he was heartened by the overall perseverance and strength of the people in the face of hardship.

He singled out for special mention front-line healthcare workers as well as those working to support vulnerable groups like the elderly, disabled and poverty-stricken.

He expressed optimism for better days ahead as Covid-19 cases ebb.

"Fortunately, the number of new infections appears to be declining nationwide. In addition, vaccinations have begun," the Emperor said. "I look forward to a bright future ahead, as our people overcome the crisis by sharing the weight of the pain and helping one another."

Emperor Naruhito lamented that the Covid-19 pandemic has reduced opportunities to meet members of the public in person, even as he noted the advantages of online outreach that has allowed him to "meet people in different places at the same time, and visit places that are normally difficult to go to, such as mountainous areas".

But he acknowledged the limitations of online outreach, saying that he wished to be able to personally visit the north-east region of Japan with the 10th anniversary of the March 11, 2011, earthquake, tsunami and nuclear tragedy on the horizon.

The triple disaster left more than 20,000 people dead and missing, and displaced as many as 470,000 others.

"I feel that the wounds of those affected have not yet healed," he said.

A magnitude-7.1 earthquake earlier this month, he added, made him feel that "it was necessary to think of the March 11 disaster as something that is still ongoing, and not as a thing of the past".

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 24, 2021, with the headline 'Naruhito voices concern about Covid-19 impact on the vulnerable'. Subscribe