Japan’s Emperor Akihito, who turned 85 yesterday, 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 held at the Imperial Palace ahead of his birthday.
Of the war that Japan waged in his father’s name, he added: “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.
Emperor Akihito will step down next April 30, handing over the throne to his elder son, Crown Prince Naruhito, who will be 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 the monarch to retire, after he implied in a rare address to the nation in August 2016 that he was concerned his old age would 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 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 82,800 well-wishers who gathered at the Imperial Palace grounds in Tokyo yesterday.
The emperor has actively sought to bridge the distance between the monarchy and the commoner, and has frequently travelled to disaster-stricken areas to extend his condolences and offer comfort to the people affected.
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 said 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 are growing among the people and the awareness of disaster preparedness and capacity to respond to disasters are increasing,” he said.
With the country suffering 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 – Japan recently passed a controversial immigration law to allow more foreign workers.
Said the monarch: “I hope the Japanese people will be able to warmly welcome as members of our society those who come to Japan to work here.”
Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko – a love story between a royal and a commoner that began on a tennis court – will mark their 60th marriage anniversary in April.
In a tribute to his wife, he 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.”
Turning to his successor, he said: “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.”