People watch a television broadcasting Japan's Emperor Akihito's…
Reporting from Tokyo — His voice was measured, his language formal, his demeanor somber. It was perhaps the clearest sign yet of just how grave Japan's nuclear crisis had become: The emperor spoke.
Akihito, the nation's 77-year-old sovereign, delivered an unprecedented address to his people Wednesday in which he urged calm, perseverance and solidarity in "the difficult days that lie ahead."
As the prerecorded speech was broadcast, workers redoubled their frantic efforts to stave off a catastrophic meltdown at a nuclear complex on Japan's northern coast, devastated last week by an earthquake and tsunami.
Photos: Earthquake and nuclear crisis in Japan
Wearing a dark suit and muted indigo tie, the emperor spoke from a reception room at the Imperial Palace, seated before a wood-framed backdrop whose appearance evoked a traditional Japanese shoji screen of rice paper. He began with a slight bow, urging victims of the disaster not to abandon hope.
"We don't know how many have died," he said. "It is my hope that many lives will be saved."
Often, Japanese court language is so arcane as to be nearly incomprehensible. In his five-minute address, though, Akihito used unusually direct patterns of speech, still highly mannered, but amounting by palace standards to almost an imperial pep talk to a beleaguered nation.
"I am deeply concerned about the nuclear situation, and hope it will be resolved," he said. "I hope things will take a turn for the better."
Despite ancient dynastic roots, the monarchy has changed with the times, to a certain extent. No longer is the emperor regarded as a living god, as was the case for centuries. Still, Akihito is a much-revered figure.
There is precedent for the sovereign to offer public condolences and comfort in times of national crisis. In 1995, Akihito and his wife, Empress Michiko, visited victims of the Kobe earthquake. That temblor killed about 6,400 people, a toll expected to be dwarfed by the loss of life in this disaster.
In 1945, it fell to Akihito's father, Hirohito, to renounce his status as a divinity and to deliver to the Japanese people the news that the nation had surrendered to the Allies. But in that scratchy radio recording, the imperial language was so freighted with ceremonial phrases and studied ambiguity that few of those listening, who were hearing the emperor's voice for the first time, actually grasped his meaning.
Employing what might have been the ultimate Japanese understatement in that famous address, Hirohito told his subjects that war developments were "not necessarily to Japan's advantage." And in an odd historical echo of today's nuclear crisis, the wartime emperor spoke of the strange and terrible power of the atomic bombs that had devastated the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Although Japan's modern-day tabloids sometimes strike a gossipy tone when talking about members of the current royal family — aggressively dissecting Empress Michiko's stress-related ailments, or the failure of her daughter-in-law, Crown Princess Masako, to produce a male heir — there is rarely, if ever, a disrespectful word uttered of Akihito.
And normally no one would dream of interrupting the emperor. But before the speech was telecast twice by the public broadcaster NHK, Akihito gave a particular instruction. If there were an important development related to the catastrophe, the control room should do what it would usually do: Break in with the news.