Emperor Akihito, on 84th birthday, says he will prepare for a new era while fulfilling duties

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Well-wishers gather to celebrate Japan's Emperor Akihito's 84th birthday at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo, Japan.
Japan's Emperor Akihito waves to well-wishers celebrating his 84th birthday at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo, Japan. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

TOKYO - Japanese Emperor Akihito, who turned 84 on Saturday (Dec 23), has said that he wants to start preparing for the dawn of a new era after he abdicates on April 30, 2019.

"Over the remaining days, as I continue to carry out my duties as the symbol of the State, I would like to make preparations for passing the torch to the next era, together with the people concerned," he told a news conference in prepared remarks ahead of his birthday.

"I am truly grateful that numerous people have put their thoughts and efforts into the matter in their respective roles."

The Imperial Household Agency said Saturday's morning crowd of 45,900 was the largest birthday attendance during Emperor Akihito's 29-year reign.

His annual birthday remarks came weeks after Parliament confirmed that he will step down under a special one-off law, in the country's first abdication in 200 years since that of Emperor Kokaku in 1817.

Only posthumous succession has been allowed by the Constitution in modern day Japan, after rules were changed during the Meiji era to prevent power struggles that could destabilise the imperial system.

The Emperor, who has had heart bypass surgery and treatment for prostate cancer, hinted that he wish to retire in a rare nationally-televised address in August 2016. He was concerned that his old age will hinder him from fully performing his duties as the "symbol of the state and unity of the people".

On May 1, 2019, the Emperor's elder son Crown Prince Naruhito, 57, will succeed his father to the Chrysanthemum throne, marking the start of a new imperial era for Japan.

Japan's Emperor Akihito, flanked by Crown Prince Naruhito, waves to well-wishers who gathered at the Imperial Palace to mark his 84th birthday in Tokyo, Japan. PHOTO: REUTERS

The Imperial Household Agency's grand steward Shinichiro Yamamoto said this month that Emperor Akihito, who presides over the Heisei (achieving peace) era, hopes to step down in a ceremony that is "as simple as possible".

This means there will be no foreign dignitaries, parade, nor a farewell greeting to the general public, he added.

Some 3.56 billion yen (S$42.4 million) has been earmarked for processes leading up to the succession ceremony in the fiscal budget for the year beginning April 2018, it was announced on Friday.

This will include costs to repair the traditional throne Takamikura that is used in accession ceremonies. Money will also be spent on renovating the Takanawa residence in Tokyo, where Emperor Akihito and his wife Empress Michiko, 83, will move after he steps down.

The residence has not been used since the death of Emperor Akihito's aunt, Princess Kikuko, at the age of 92 in December 2004.

Another 153 million yen has been earmarked as allowance for Emperor Akihito's eldest granddaughter Princess Mako, 26, who will marry her university sweetheart Kei Komuro, 26, a paralegal, on Nov 4. The stipend is given to princesses who give up their royal status and become a commoner after getting married.

On their marriage, Emperor Akihito had said in his birthday remarks released on Saturday: "This gives me much joy, and I pray for their happiness."

Since Emperor Akihito ascended to the throne in 1989, Japan has marked Dec 23 as a national holiday in his honour.

But with his stepping down, government officials said the date might be turned into a regular working day.

Crown Prince Naruhito's birthday on Feb 23 will become a national holiday by law.

There are concerns that retaining Dec 23 as a national holiday will create an impression of dual authority. Emperor Akihito will hold the title joko (retired emperor) after he abdicates, although Japan has marked the birthdays of past emperors with national holidays.

Culture Day on Nov 3 was the birthday of Emperor Mutsuhito - posthumously called Emperor Meiji - and Showa Day on April 29 was the birthday of Emperor Hirohito, who is more commonly known as Emperor Showa after his death.

Meanwhile, Emperor Akihito, widely seen as the "people's Emperor", reflected on the past year in his birthday remarks. With his wife, he had travelled to disaster-hit regions to meet survivors, as well as made overseas visits to Vietnam and Thailand.

Japan's Emperor Akihito talks with with Empress Michiko at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo, Japan. PHOTO: IMPERIAL HOUSEHOLD AGENCY

He expressed his solidarity and condolences to survivors of severe natural disasters that struck Japan this year, including torrential rains in July that struck Kyushu in southwest Japan.

In October, he visited the badly-hit parts of Fukuoka and Oita prefectures, where the deluge killed 36 people.

He said he was reminded "anew how terrifying the power of nature can be", but felt reassured that those affected were "steadfastly working hand in hand toward reconstruction, even in the depths of their grief".

In Februrary, he went to Vietnam, where he met the Vietnamese family members of Japanese soldiers who had stayed behind after World War II. These soldiers had also fought alongside the Vietnamese in their war for independence from France, which lasted from 1946 to 1954.

But after Vietnam gained independence, the Emperor said "those former soldiers were advised to return to Japan and forced to leave the country, reluctantly parting with their families (who) endured numerous hardships."

Yet he was "deeply moved", he said, that warm exchanges were formed and have continued over the years between the affected Vietnamese families, and the new families formed by the Japanese soldiers after their return to Japan.

Emperor Akihito then visited Thailand, where he paid his last respects to the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who died in October last year.

"I recalled with fondness our many years of friendship as I paid my final respects," he said.

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