On his birthday, Japan Emperor Naruhito expresses concerns about Covid-19's impact on vulnerable

Japan's Emperor Naruhito speaks during a news conference on the occasion of his 61st birthday at Akasaka Palace in Tokyo.
Japan's Emperor Naruhito speaks during a news conference on the occasion of his 61st birthday at Akasaka Palace in Tokyo.PHOTO: REUTERS

TOKYO – 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 on Tuesday (Feb 23) in muted fashion, 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 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 the 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 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 with the 10th anniversary of the March 11, 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear tragedy on the horizon. 

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

“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”.