TOKYO – Japan’s Emperor Akihito, who turned 85 on Sunday (Dec 23) as the clock ticks down on his time on the throne, has said he was heartened that the Heisei (achieving peace) era was coming to an end without his country having engaged in war.

“It gives me deep comfort that the Heisei era is coming to an end, free of war in Japan,” the pacifist monarch said in an emotional news conference that was held at the Imperial Palace ahead of his birthday.

He added, of the war that Japan waged in his father’s name: “I have believed it is important not to forget that countless lives were lost in World War II and that the peace and prosperity of post-war Japan was built upon the numerous sacrifices and tireless efforts made by the Japanese people.”

He stressed that it was crucial to “pass on this history accurately to those born after the war”, in what was his last birthday news conference as monarch.

The octogenarian monarch will step down on April 30, handing over the Chrysanthemum Throne to his elder son Crown Prince Naruhito, who turns 59 on Feb 23, in what will be the first abdication ceremony in 200 years.

A special one-time law was passed last year to allow Emperor Akihito to retire, after he implied in a rare address to the nation in August 2016 that he was concerned his old age will prevent him from fully performing his duties as “the symbol of the State and of the unity of the people” as stated in Japan’s post-war pacifist Constitution.

The imperial handover will herald a new era, the name of which is expected to be announced only weeks before the ascension ceremony. The Heisei era began on Jan 8, 1989, the day after the death of Emperor Akihito’s father, Hirohito.

Emperor Akihito said he has spent his days on the throne pondering the role of the Emperor. He said that over the next four months, he intends “to carry out my duties in that capacity and shall continue to contemplate this question as I perform my day-to-day duties until the day of my abdication”.

The Emperor is a venerated national symbol, as evident from the record 57,000 members of public who gathered at the Imperial Palace grounds in Tokyo on a gloomy Sunday morning at 11.30am (10.30am Singapore time), hoping for a glimpse of the imperial family.

Emperor Akihito has actively sought to bridge the distance between the monarchy and the commoner, and has frequently travelled the country to disaster-stricken areas to extend his condolences, kneeling down in front of victims and holding them by hand.

Among his trips this year – made with his wife Empress Michiko, 84 – were to Hiroshima, Ehime and Okayama, which suffered from landslides and flooding after torrential rainfall in July, as well as to Hokkaido, which was struck by a magnitude 6.7 earthquake in September.

He also said that he could not forget the “natural disasters that struck with even greater frequency than in previous years” in the past year, adding: “(I) saw the actual state of damage with my own eyes on my visits to some of the afflicted areas, and the catastrophic destruction caused by the force of nature was beyond my imagination.”

He added that he was still at a loss for words to describe the deep sadness when he thinks about the many natural disasters that had struck in the Heisei era – notably the Kobe earthquake in 1995 and the Tohoku earthquake in 2011 that triggered a tsunami and a nuclear crisis.

“At the same time, I have been heartened to see that, in the face of such difficulties, the spirit of volunteering and other forms of cooperation is growing among the people and that the awareness of disaster preparedness and the capacity to respond to disasters are increasing,” he said. “I am always touched by the sight of people coping in an orderly manner when disasters strike.”

The peace-loving monarch said that he was pained that hopes for a time of peace with the fall of the Berlin Wall in the first year of Heisei in 1989, which marked the end of the Cold War, had not been fulfilled.

“It pains my heart that ethnic disputes and religious conflicts have occurred, numerous lives have been lost to acts of terrorism, and a large number of refugees are still enduring lives of hardship today throughout the world,” he said.

With Japan having recently passed a controversial immigration law to allow more foreign workers as the country suffers from the strains of an ageing population – government data last Friday estimated the number of babies born this year at 921,000, the lowest since 1899, when comparable data was available – Emperor Akihito said: “I hope that the Japanese people will be able to warmly welcome as members of our society those who come to Japan to work here.”

And as the country is on track to hit a record 31 million visitors this year, the Emperor added: “It is my hope that these visitors will see Japan with their own eyes and deepen their understanding of our country, and that goodwill and friendship will be promoted between Japan and other countries.”

Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko – a love story between a royal and a commoner that had begun on a tennis court in Karuizawa, Nagano – will mark their 60th marriage anniversary in April next year. In a tribute to his wife, the Emperor said: “The Empress has always been at my side, understood my thoughts, and supported me in my position and official duties as I performed my duties as the Emperor.”

His voice quavering, Emperor Akihito said that his days as monarch were numbered.

“As I come to the end of my journey as emperor, I would like to thank from the bottom of my heart the many people who accepted and continued to support me,” he said. “I will abdicate next spring and a new era will begin. I am sincerely thankful to the many people who are engaged in the preparations.”

He added: “The Crown Prince, who will be the Emperor in the new era, and Prince Akishino, who will be supporting the new Emperor, have each accumulated various experiences, and I think that, while carrying on the traditions of the imperial family, they will continue to walk their paths, keeping pace with the ever-changing society.”

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