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TOKYO (AP) — Japan's Emperor Akihito marked his 84th birthday on Saturday with a pledge to fulfill his duties until the day of his abdication in 2019, and to prepare for "passing the torch to the next era."
Akihito waved to thousands of well-wishers from a balcony of the royal palace. He was to attend birthday celebrations at the palace later Saturday.
In his annual birthday comment at a news conference earlier this week and released Saturday, Akihito thanked the people for putting together thoughts and efforts to achieve his abdication wish that had surprised the nation.
Akihito still has a busy schedule, signing official documents, receiving foreign dignitaries and traveling to disaster-hit areas. But he said he will keep working until April 30, 2019, the day he is scheduled to abdicate.
"Over the remaining days, I continue to carry out my duties as the symbol of the state," Akihito said. "I would like to make preparations for passing the torch to the next era, together with the people concerned."
Akihito last year expressed his wish to abdicate, citing his age and health as a concern. He ascended the throne at the age of 56 in January 1989, after the death of his father, Emperor Hirohito, beginning the Heisei Era.
The government has adopted a one-time law allowing for Akihito's abdication, and this month formally set the date for the event. His elder son Crown Prince Naruhito will ascend the Chrysanthemum Throne the next day, on May 1, 2019. He will be 59.
There will be more preparations ahead of the abdication, including deciding a new era name and a new home for the emperor and the empress.
Akihito's desire to leave the throne revived a debate about the country's 2,000-year-old monarchy, one of the world's oldest, as well as discussion about improving the status of female members of the shrinking royal population. The current male-only succession rules prohibit women from succeeding the throne. Women lose their royal status when they marry a commoner.
Unlike his father who was worshipped as god until the end of World War II, Akihito has devoted himself to being a symbolic figure as defined in Japan's postwar pacifist constitution while trying to soothe the wounds of war from his father's era. Though spoken in soft language, his emphasis on the importance of peace and compassions toward the handicapped, the weak and the elderly as he himself grew older is often seen in contrast to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's ultra right-wing, hawkish policies.
In his birthday comment, Akihito also mentioned his sympathy for the suffering of those affected by volcanic eruptions and fatal rainstorms in southern Japan earlier this year.
The last emperor to abdicate was 200 years ago — Kokaku in 1817.
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