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Japan's emperor greets huge crowd in final New Year address

Kazuhiro Nogi, AFP | Japan's Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko wave to well-wishers from the balcony of the Imperial Palace in Tokyo on January 2, 2019.

Japan's Emperor Akihito delivered his final New Year's address Wednesday before his abdication later this year, telling a record turnout of well-wishers that he was praying for peace.

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The Imperial Palace said some 154,800 people had flocked to the royal residence for a final chance to see the 85-year-old royal deliver his traditional annual greeting.

It was the largest number of visitors to the palace for his New Year speech since he ascended to the throne in 1989.

The emperor 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 pray for peace and happiness in Japan and around the world'

"I hope this year will be a good year for as many people as possible," the soft-spoken Akihito said in a dark suit, 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. One woman in the front row shed tears as she looked up at the balcony.

"I came here with my mother to imprint his last appearance as emperor in our memories," said Yume Nishimura, a university student, as she waited in a long queue to enter the palace.

"I want to tell him we appreciate his hard work for the country," she told AFP.

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."

Pacifist views

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 Akihito's father Hirohito, who died in 1989.

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.

The palace, surrounded by stone walls and mossy moats, is opened to the public twice a year -- on the emperor's birthday and the second day of New Year -- for the royal family to greet well-wishers.

In a rare emotional address to mark his 85th birthday last month, Akihito pointed to the "countless lives" lost in the war.

"It gives me deep comfort that the Heisei Era (his reign) is coming to an end, free of war in Japan," he said in a press statement.

Akihito has used his speeches and travels to express his strong pacifist views, which are sharply at odds with the aggressive expansionism Japan pursued under his father's rule.

The emperor has also worked to bring the royal household closer to the people and frequently visited the disadvantaged and families hit by natural disasters.

(AFP)

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