The end of an era drew closer at the Imperial Palace on Sunday as tens of thousands of people gathered to celebrate Emperor Akihito’s 85th birthday, which will be his last upon the Chrysanthemum Throne before he steps down next April.
Joined by Empress Michiko and Crown Prince Naruhito, along with five other members of the Imperial family, the Emperor was humble and drew attention to the less fortunate as he addressed the throngs of well-wishers.
“I am grateful to have received so many birthday wishes from you all,” the Emperor said.
“Many unfortunate things happened this past year. My heart is with those who have lost family and loved ones, or suffered natural disasters and continue to live in difficult circumstances,” he said.
“The new year is almost here. I hope it will be a good year for everyone, and I am praying for your health and happiness.”
Despite a light rain and cold breeze, more than 82,850 people reportedly attended the celebration.
Tokyo couple Masahiro and Kiyoko Higuchi brought all three of their boys to the birthday celebration.
“I wanted them to see it for themselves,” Masahiro Higuchi said. “That this is part of our culture and our country’s history.”
Much like his own children, Masahiro Higuchi said he was in grade school when his parents brought him to the Imperial Palace for the first time. He recalled flags waving and people shouting when the Emperor appeared. The couple know their kids might be too young to take it all in, but they wanted them to be there nonetheless.
While walking through the palace grounds Sunday, Higuchi said he was teaching his oldest son about the buildings they passed, the names of important things and how different Tokyo used to be.
“This is part of our history,” he said. “How they feel about it, good or bad, they will figure it out when they get older.
The Imperial Household is said to be the oldest hereditary monarchy in the world. In 2016, Emperor Akihito made a rare public TV announcement hinting at his desire to relinquish the throne due to old age. The last abdication occurred more than 200 years ago, in 1817.
An elderly woman who preferred to remain anonymous took the day off work and wore a gray and brown kimono to the celebration Sunday. Born and raised in Tokyo, she said she has been visiting the Imperial Palace for decades, and remembers one time several years ago when she was walking through the grounds and saw Empress Michiko, who happened to be returning from a trip.
The Empress stopped and greeted people as she passed by, she said, and even let her hold her hand. She said she remembers the event as if it happened yesterday.
“The Emperor and Empress are role models for every family in Japan,” she said. “They are such elegant people. We could all learn from them.”
Asked to sum up Emperor Akihito’s reign in a single word or phrase, she thought for a moment before responding, kansha, which literally means gratitude or appreciation.
“I’m grateful that we aren’t at war,” she said. “I’m grateful that we have been able to live in peace for so long.”