Empress Michiko, on the occasion of her 69th birthday Monday, confessed that she was worried when Emperor Akihito underwent surgery to remove his cancerous prostate in January.

“There were many experiences that were new for me as well, and those were anxious and uneasy days,” she said in a written reply to questions from the Imperial Household Agency press corps.

“There were times when I hoped that it was something that was happening in a dream from which at any moment I would be able to wake up with relief,” she said, referring to the period when the Emperor’s illness was being diagnosed.

Recent blood tests suggest the Emperor may still have cancer.

The Empress expressed hope that his workload will be reduced in accordance with his wishes.

Referring to the five Japanese who returned to Japan last October after being abducted to North Korea in 1978, she said, “I feel that we must not forget that each of them after a long time of separation and harboring within themselves a sadness that probably none of us could fully fathom, are enduring the hardships of adapting themselves once again to Japanese society.”

Commenting on international events over the past year, she expressed sorrow over the attack on the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad in August, which killed many, including the U.N.’s top envoy in Iraq, Sergio Vieira de Mello.

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