TOKYO • Japan's Emperor Akihito delivered his final New Year's address yesterday before his abdication later this year, telling a record turnout of well-wishers that he was praying for peace.
The Imperial Palace provisionally said about 154,800 people had flocked to the royal residence for a final chance to see the 85-year-old monarch deliver his traditional annual greeting.
It was the largest number of visitors to the palace for his New Year speech since he ascended the throne in 1989.
The Emperor, dressed in a dark suit, appeared seven times at the balcony - up from five originally scheduled - as he "strongly" wanted more people to attend after seeing the vast number of well-wishers still gathered outside the palace in the afternoon, a palace spokesman said.
He will become the first Japanese monarch to abdicate in around two centuries when he steps down from the throne on April 30, ending his three-decade reign.
"Happy New Year. I'm sincerely glad to celebrate the new year together with you under the clear sky," he told the crowd, many waving Japanese flags and shouting "banzai", meaning "long live".
"I hope this year will be a good year for as many people as possible," said the soft-spoken Emperor, flanked by Empress Michiko and other family members.
"I pray for the peace and happiness of the people of our country and the world," he added.
Some in the morning crowd yelled, "Thank you very much", as the Emperor waved, while others sang the national anthem.
"I came here with my mother to imprint his last appearance as emperor in our memories," said Ms Yume Nishimura, a university student, as she waited in a long queue to enter the palace.
Mr Kazuo Iwasaki, a 68-year-old pensioner, said: "I hope he will be able to spend his post-retirement years in a healthy and relaxing manner with Empress Michiko."
Emperor Akihito shocked the country in 2016 when he signalled his desire to take a back seat, citing his age and health problems.
His eldest son, Crown Prince Naruhito, is set to take the Chrysanthemum Throne a day after his father's abdication, continuing the rule of the world's oldest imperial family.
The status of the emperor is sensitive in Japan given its 20th-century history of war waged in the name of Emperor Akihito's father, Hirohito, who died in 1989.
Emperor Akihito has keenly embraced the more modern role as a symbol of the state - imposed after World War II ended. Previous emperors, including his father, had been treated as semi-divine.