IMAGE: Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko
Toshiyuki Aizawa  /  Reuters
Japan's Emperor Akihito, second from right, and Empress Michiko, right, respond Tuesday to flag-waving well-wishers with Crown Prince Naruhito and Crown Princess Masako, left, during a public appearance in a New Year celebration at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo.
updated 1/2/2007 7:15:03 PM ET 2007-01-03T00:15:03

Thousands of well-wishers waving Japanese flags gathered Tuesday at the Imperial Palace for a series of rare appearances by Emperor Akihito and the royal family marking the new year.

Crown Princess Masako, who is recovering from a stress-induced illness, accompanied other members of the royal family on only three of their seven appearances on the palace’s glass-enclosed balcony, according to Kyodo News agency.

“I am truly happy to celebrate the new year with you,” Akihito told the crowd of about 17,000 people at his first morning appearance. “I wish for the happiness of people in our country and peace in the world.”

Masako, 43, smiled and waved together with her husband, Crown Prince Naruhito. But palace officials said the diplomat-turned-princess, who retreated from official duties in 2003 because of depression, is still recovering and cannot handle strenuous activities.

Masako’s depression is thought to have been brought on by the stresses of palace life. She was also under heavy pressure to produce a male heir.

That pressure was somewhat relieved in September when Princess Kiko, the wife of Naruhito’s younger brother, Prince Akishino, gave birth to a boy, forestalling a succession crisis.

Kiko joined the family on the balcony for only the first three and final two appearances, as her baby is still nursing, Kyodo said.

The birth also derailed moves to change Japan’s male-only imperial succession law to allow Masako’s only daughter, Aiko, to ascend the Chrysanthemum throne. Still, recent polls have shown the public continues to back the idea of a female monarch.

Japan’s imperial family is still highly popular but remains largely shielded from view by secretive palace officials. Akihito and his wife, Empress Michiko, are scheduled to visit Europe later in the year.

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