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Emperor concerned about effect of age on official duties

Emperor Akihito has expressed his intention to abdicate within several years, making way for his son Crown Prince Naruhito, a revelation that made headlines across Japanese media on the night of July 13. The Emperor has frankly voiced concerns about the effect of his age on his official duties, while showing his strong eagerness to perform his duties and continuing to visit disaster affected areas to encourage victims and making overseas trips to mourn for the war dead.

The Emperor's official trips have indeed covered quite extensive areas, flying from midwinter Tokyo to the midsummer Philippines, or making a one-day trip between Tokyo and quake-hit Kumamoto Prefecture by taking a plane and a Self-Defense Forces helicopter.

This year, at age 82, the Emperor is still traveling from one place to another at home and abroad, while devoting himself to day-to-day official duties. He makes it a rule to take a one-kilometer, 20-30 minute walk and jog inside the Imperial Palace every morning, apparently because he believes regular lifestyle habits will help maintain his health.

After undergoing surgery for prostate cancer in January 2003, the Emperor received hormonal therapy. In December 2008, he fell ill from an irregular heartbeat and a rise in blood pressure, and was diagnosed with inflammation of the stomach and duodenum along with bleeding. The cause of his ill health was attributed to mental stress.

By around that time, his workload had become far heavier than that of his late father Emperor Showa when he was in his 70s. Because of the increase in the number of countries that have established diplomatic ties with Japan, the occasions for the Emperor to host visiting foreign dignitaries doubled and his meetings with Japanese ambassadors before their departure to countries of their assignment increased by nearly five times. His official trips to regional areas across Japan had also more than doubled.

In February 2011, he was diagnosed with a narrowing of a coronary artery, which was not as serious as to affect his daily life. After the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami struck northeast Japan in March the same year, he visited disaster areas for seven weeks in a row, encouraging local residents at evacuation shelters and other areas.

In February 2012, the Emperor, then 78, was diagnosed with slightly advanced coronary narrowing. After a team of doctors discussed whether to continue medication or perform surgery, it was decided that the Emperor would undergo coronary artery bypass surgery. Doctors reportedly concluded that any source of concern should be removed to enhance the quality of life of the Emperor, who often travels long distances for his official duties.

The timing of his hospitalization was decided at the request of the Emperor, who wished to attend the memorial ceremony on March 11, 2012, marking the first anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake. Despite his health issues, his passion for performing his official duties remained unchanged.

At a press conference in December 2012 marking his 79th birthday, the Emperor said about his official duties, "I would like to maintain the status quo for the time being." He stated, "In addition to the matters of state designated by the Constitution of Japan, the duties of the Emperor include symbolic duties which his status as a symbol makes it appropriate for the Emperor to take on officially." His comment conveyed his strong belief that the Emperor, as "the symbol of the state and of the unity of the people" as stipulated in the Constitution, bears one and only role and that his official duties should not be reduced easily nor be covered by someone else.

Changes have been seen with the Emperor in recent years. During a memorial service for the war dead at the Nippon Budokan hall in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward on Aug. 15 last year, the Emperor and the Empress were supposed to proceed to the front of a monument set up on the stage and to observe a moment of silence at the tone of noon. However, the Emperor took out a piece of paper bearing a message he was supposed to deliver following the silent prayer, and started reading the first part of the message. Shortly afterwards, an announcement notifying the prayer time was heard. The Emperor quietly put the note back into his breast pocket and observed a moment of silence.

"I shall turn 82 on this birthday. I am beginning to feel my age, and there are times when I made some mistakes at events," the Emperor remarked during a press conference marking his birthday in December last year.

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