TOKYO -- More than 82,000 well-wishers visited the Imperial Palace here to celebrate Emperor Akihito's 85th birthday on Dec. 23, a record during the Heisei era that ushered in nearly 30 years ago following his enthronement. As His Majesty is set to abdicate in April next year, this was the last public celebration of his birthday at the palace.
Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko stood on a balcony at the palace on a total of three occasions in the morning alongside Crown Prince Naruhito and Princess Masako and other members of the Imperial Family, acknowledging the well wishes from the general public with a smile. A total of 82,850 people paid their respects at the palace, including those who signed their names on greeting books to congratulate His Majesty on his birthday.
During his speech, Emperor Akihito expressed his deep concern to people affected by a spate of natural disasters that devastated various regions across the country earlier this year, including those who lost their family members and loved ones.
"My thoughts are with people who are still leading inconvenient lives, and I'm deeply concerned about their well-being," he stated. "I hope the New Year will be a bright, good one for everyone. I extend my best wishes for everyone's good health and happiness."
Kiyohiko Hirashima, 83, a resident of Izumisano, Osaka Prefecture, in western Japan who joined the event for the first time, commented, "The Emperor's press conference (held prior to his birthday) and his speech today touched my heart. I'm grateful that His Majesty has always been concerned about the public."
A 28-year-old woman from Kure, Hiroshima Prefecture, in western Japan said, "I wanted to see His Majesty just for once in my life as someone who was born during the Heisei era." She continued, "He came to Hiroshima out of concern for residents affected by natural disasters and survivors of the atomic bombing. I hope he will spend a relaxing time after abdication."
The turnout of well-wishers for the Emperor's birthday celebration kept rising since the release of a video message in 2016 in which Emperor Akihito suggested his wish to retire. On his birthday later that year, 38,588 people showed up at the Imperial Palace, marking a record high during the Heisei era, only to be broken by the figure the next year at 52,300.
For this year's event, the Imperial Household Agency set up two large screens so people at the edge of the crowds could see the Emperor.
On Jan. 2 next year, the Emperor and Empress and other Imperial Family members will host well-wishers from the Imperial Palace balcony for a New Year greeting.
As Crown Prince Naruhito is set to be enthroned on May 1 next year after his birthday on Feb. 23, there will be no public holiday marking the emperor's birthday in 2019.
(Japanese original by Nao Yamada, City News Department)