Japan's Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko make first trip to disaster zone

Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko visited two evacuation shelters Thursday in Asahi city, about 54 miles east of Tokyo near the Pacific coast.

Kyodo News/AP
Japanese Emperor Akihito (l.) and Empress Michiko, kneel down and smile at people at an evacuation shelter in Asahi City in Chiba Prefecture, about 54 miles east of Tokyo, on Thursday, April 14, during their first trip to the disaster zone since the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. The imperial couple visited two evacuation shelters in the city near the Pacific coast.

Japan's Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko have held off on visiting the country's tsunami- and earthquake-affected disaster sites to avoid interfering with rescue efforts – until now.

Today, the royal couple offered condolences and words of support to survivors at two shelters in Asahi city, where 13 people were killed and thousands of homes were damaged some 50 miles from Tokyo. Photos show Akihito and Michiko kneeling on mats and blankets, talking with evacuees as other evacuees snap pictures on their cellphone cameras in the background.

Akihito gave a rare TV address on March 16, to soothe concerns around the country.

The emperor said in his address that the country had never seen anything like the current disaster, and that he was "deeply worried." He added that he was praying for the country and encouraged survivors, many of whom were awaiting news on the status of their loved ones, not to abandon hope. The royal couple met with evacuees at a shelter in Tokyo on March 30, and then again at a shelter in Kazo City near Tokyo on April 11.

As of Thursday, some 26,000 people are thought to have died in the disaster, though only about 13,000 bodies have so far been found. Search and rescue teams suited up in protective gear to look for the estimated 1,000 bodies expected to still be near the stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Since the tsunami knocked out power to the plant on March 11, preventing the plant from nuclear meltdown has been the center of international focus surrounding the disaster.

About 140,000 people are still in temporary shelters after tens of thousands of homes were destroyed or damaged. In total, the earthquake, tsunami, and evacuation may have displaced close to half a million people.

Public appearances by the emperor and his wife are extremely rare, though they have reached out to the public in the wake of other disasters, such as the 1995 earthquake in Kobe that killed about 6,400 people.

Emperor Akihito no longer has a political role – his father ceded the emperor's role as national leader following Japan's defeat in World War II. But he remains a respected and influential figurehead.

The royal couple are slated to visit Sendai, Iwate, and Miyagi, three of the hardest-hit prefectures, in the coming weeks, reports Japanese broadcaster NHK.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.