'Superfan' of Japan's royals has followed them for decades

KAWASAKI, Japan (Reuters) - Wherever Japan’s royals go, there too goes Fumiko Shirataki: in summer heat and winter cold, to the ocean and to the mountains.

Royal aficionado Fumiko Shirataki, 78, displays her collection of photographs of royal family members at her home in Kawasaki, Japan, February 21, 2019. REUTERS/Issei Kato

Except when it snows or rains too hard.

“You can’t get good pictures then - and if the camera lens gets wet, it might get damaged. I really worry about that,” said Shirataki, 78, who has spent the last 26 years following and photographing Emperor Akihito, Empress Michiko and especially Crown Princess Masako.

“As soon as I know their plans I’ll be there - though it’s hard if I only find out the night before.” she added.

Shirataki’s passion for “okkake,” as the pursuit is known in Japan, began in 1993, when she followed then-Masako Owada after her engagement to Crown Prince Naruhito but couldn’t get good photos.

“I wasn’t used to carrying such a heavy camera, so I’d shoot the tyres, or the back seat, or the driver,” Shirataki said in the kitchen of her home in Kawasaki, near Tokyo, decorated with a photo of Masako and an Imperial Family calendar.

But now she has honed her skills, and her house is filled with a huge number of photos.

“Uncountable,” she said. “After all, it’s been 26 years.”

Shirataki won’t reveal how she and her fan friends figure out the royal schedules. But once she has the details, she loads a backpack, takes a collapsible chair and a rice ball to eat, and heads out.

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“They know our faces by now, so when we raise the cameras I guess they think ‘here they are’ and they face towards us and wave,” said Shirataki, who always wears sneakers and trousers for ease of movement while she’s on the hunt.

Shirataki and her fellow chasers, nearly all of whom are female, say their main focus is the royal women and their clothes. Because of time constraints - she works part time at a car dealership - she concentrates on the empress and empress-to-be.

“When my husband was still alive and earning, I’d spend five or six days a week at this, but now I have to work,” she said. The photo in the Buddhist altar for her husband, who died two years ago, is smaller than a picture of Masako displayed nearby.

Though she’s cagey about how much her hobby costs, she spends at least 50,000 yen ($447) annually just on photos.

Shirataki says Masako is her favorite and has even appeared in her dreams. But Shirataki worries how she will fare as empress after the stress-related illness that kept her out of the public eye for many years.

“There could be a lot of times where Masako won’t go with the emperor,” she said. “If it’s just him, we won’t go. Her alone? Yes.”

Shirataki may already have reached the pinnacle of okkake success: this year, she shook hands with the empress.

“I’ve talked with them briefly before but that’s the only time I’d ever been able to put out my hand ... I didn’t realize I would do it,” Shirataki said.

“When I asked, she just said, in a small voice, ‘If my hand is okay,’” she added. “And then I did.”

($1 = 111.9400 yen)

Additional reporting by Issei Kato; Editing by Gerry Doyle