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Japan's Emperor Akihito begins countdown to abdication

The country's imperial family is far more cloistered than their Western counterparts, and the emperor's father was once viewed as a god.

TOKYO — Japanese Emperor Akihito waved to throngs of well-wishers eager to see the final New Year's appearance of his reign Wednesday just months before the 85-year-old royal abdicates.

"I am truly happy to celebrate the New Year with all of you under such cloudless skies," he told the crowd from a balcony at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo.

Akihito makes annual New Year's appearances alongside his wife Empress Michiko and other family members to wish peace for the nation. He was scheduled to make five appearances Wednesday. Japanese media reported more than 90,000 people had gathered by early afternoon. Many waved Japanese flags and had waited from early in the morning.

Akihito succeeded his father, wartime Emperor Hirohito, in 1989. He will abdicate on April 30 with his elder son ascending to the Chrysanthemum Throne.

Japan's imperial family is far more cloistered than their Western counterparts, and Hirohito was once viewed as a god. Akihito strove to become a more accessible emperor. He was the first to marry a commoner, courting Michiko on the tennis courts. Both of his sons have married commoners.

His abdication is also a rarity. He announced his desire to step down in a video message, citing a worry about how well he could perform his duties as his health declined.

Akihito appeared to wobble during a palace event earlier this week to greet foreign dignitaries. Michiko reached out worriedly and held up his arm with hers.

Image: Cheering crowds greet Japan's Emperor Akihito and other members of the royal family
Cheering crowds greeted Japan's Emperor Akihito and other members of the royal family at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo on Wednesday.ISSEI KATO / Reuters

Akihito's three-decade reign is known in Japan as "Heisei," with the first character meaning "peace." A name for the new era will be chosen with much fanfare later this year.

Crown Prince Naruhito appeared on the balcony with his wife, Masako, who was smiling and wearing a burgundy dress. She has skipped some events in recent years due to what palace officials have described as a stress-related illness.

The public is closely watching to see how the younger and more international couple might bring openness to a role that holds no political power but is widely recognized as a cultural and emotional symbol for Japan.

Naruhito's younger brother and his family are also expected to play a fairly major role.

The Japanese throne is only inherited by male heirs, and Naruhito's only child is a daughter. Prince Akishino and his young son are next in the line of succession after Naruhito.