BANGKOK -- When Japan's Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko offered a bouquet at the coffin of the late Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Akihito appeared pensive as he fixed his gaze at the altar for a while.
It was a sober moment when Akihito's friend died in October. The imperial couple, who flew in from Vietnam, the first leg of their tour, were in Bangkok to pay their respects at the royal palace.
Bhumibol and his wife, Queen Sirikit, were close friends of Akihito and Michiko, who knew them since their first Thai visit in December 1964. At that time they were the crown prince and princess, both aged 30. Bhumibol was 37 and Sirikit 32.
The young couples were quick to strike up a friendship and enjoyed their time together. In one account, the late king entertained his Japanese guests by playing Benny Goodman songs on his clarinet aboard a plane from Bangkok to Chiang Mai. They were heading for a villa there.
While the Japanese couple were at the villa, Bhumibol took the wheel of a car and drove them into the mountains to visit a village of Mon people, an ethnic minority. At that time, the king had initiated a "royal project" under which various aide programs were implemented for impoverished rural villages. He visited and walked around such villages himself to see their situation in wide areas of the country.
That was why he wanted the important guests from Japan to see the lives of poor people.
Bhumibol's benevolent work won him wide respect among the Thai people.
The friendship between the two couples likely developed not just because they were close in age. More to the point is that Bhumibol's work struck a chord with Akihito, as revealed in the Japanese emperor's statement last August: "It is essential to stand by the people, listen to their voices, and be close to them in their thoughts."
When the 60th anniversary celebrations of Bhumibol's accession to the throne were held in June 2006, imperial and royal family members from 25 countries were invited. One feature of the event was displays depicting the history of land development in Thailand. While other guests were chatting, the Japanese Imperial couple were about the only ones who showed enthusiasm for them, walking around to see all of the displays.
Akihito and Michiko must have known the royal project had a lot to do with Thailand's development. The two couples had great empathy for each other, and that is why Bhumibol gave them the warm welcome he did when the Japanese couple visited. Bhumibol's death, for Akihito and Michiko, represented the loss of a close friend.