Breaking News Emails

Get breaking news alerts and special reports. The news and stories that matter, delivered weekday mornings.
 / Updated 
By Arata Yamamoto and F. Brinley Bruton

TOKYO — Japanese Emperor Akihito will abdicate "within a few years," the country's public broadcaster reported Wednesday, signaling the end of a reign that emphasized regret for his country's actions during World War II and the need for reconciliation.

Born in 1933, Akihito was heir to Emperor Hirohito, in whose name Japan fought World War II. He ascended to the throne in 1989 and his heir is 56-year-old Crown Prince Naruhito.

Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko wave to locals as they take a walk on a coast near the Hayama Imperial Villa near Tokyo in February.Koji Sasahara / AP

"We have learned that the emperor has expressed his intention to transfer the position of emperor to the crown prince while still alive," public broadcaster NHK reported on Wednesday night without citing its sources. "His wish is to to pass on the role within a few years, and an effort is under way for the emperor himself to express his thoughts widely both domestically and abroad."

The report added that Akihito, a scientist by vocation, felt that as he aged and cut down on his duties, he found it was "not desirable for him stay in the position of emperor."

Related: Japanese Emperor Mourns World War II Dead

The palace did not issue an official statement on what would be an unprecedented move in modern Japan.

Soft-spoken Akihito has seen his country wage war alongside Hitler's Germany, be bombed by U.S. atomic weapons, and then become one of the world's most prosperous and powerful nations.

Crown Prince Naruhito and Crown Princess Masako.Atsushi Tomura / Getty Images

The 82-year-old has often urged Japan not to forget the suffering of war.

Last August, Akihito marked the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II with an expression of "deep remorse," a departure from his annual script which some saw as a subtle rebuke of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who has sought to adopt a less apologetic tone.

"I pray that this tragedy of war will not be repeated and together with the people express my deep condolences for those who fell in battle and in the ravages of war," he said on August 15.

Akihito was also the first royal heir to marry a commoner — Empress Michiko, who is now 81.

His efforts to draw the imperial family closer to the people in image, if not in fact, played into a carefully crafted picture of a "middle-class monarchy" that has helped shield it from the harsh criticism suffered by flashier royals abroad.

Reuters contributed.