TOKYO - Japan's Emperor Akihito, who is handing the Chrysanthemum Throne to his son next year, was showered with cheers from tens of thousands of New Year's well-wishers Tuesday at the Imperial Palace.
"Happy New Year,'' the 84-year-old emperor said from a balcony. "I wish that this year will prove a gentle and spiritually fulfilling one for as many people as possible.''
Crown Prince Naruhito and his wife appeared at the emperor's side. Masako, a former diplomat, has suffered from stress and has often skipped public events. It's unclear how she will step up to her upcoming role as empress.
Emperors have rarely abdicated in Japan, the last being 200 years ago. Akihito's father, wartime Emperor Hirohito, died in 1989 of an illness.
Akihito's abdication was set for April 30, 2019, after he expressed his wish to retire because of his age and health concerns.
The New Year's appearance is a rare opportunity for the public to greet the emperor on palace grounds, and this year's was expected to attract even more people than usual because of his retirement. The other such appearance he makes is for his birthday in December.
The emperor's role has been symbolic after Japan's defeat in World War II, and he and the imperial family have no political powers.
Naruhito and Masako have a daughter, Princess Aiko, but only males can inherit the throne. Masako's not producing a son is widely believed to be related to her stress-related problems.
From the start, when she married Naruhito, in 1993, the public was aware of the pressures she might face in the cloistered tradition-bound royal family. Naruhito, educated at Oxford, made a widely publicized remark that he would "protect Masako.''
Naruhito has a younger brother who has a son among his three children.
Akihito and Empress Michiko, the first commoner to marry into the royal family, are popular in Japan.
Although Japan fought World War II in the name of the emperor, Akihito has always stood for peace.
Before the royal couple retires, they are expected to visit places that commemorate peace, as well as people who fled their homes after the 2011 tsunami set off a nuclear disaster in northeastern Japan.