In his first birthday address since ascending the chrysanthemum throne, Emperor Naruhito pledged to stand by the people of Japan in responding to intensifying environmental and social challenges ranging from climate change to the novel coronavirus outbreak.

“In this rapidly changing society, I am contemplating measures in our official duties that would be complementary with such societal changes,” said the emperor, who turns 60 on Sunday, during a Friday news conference held in commemoration of his birthday.

“I believe the imperial family bears a share of the responsibility” to address such challenges, he told reporters at his residence near the Imperial Palace.

He pointed to the climate crisis as one of the main challenges Japan has faced in recent years. Climate change is said to have contributed to stronger typhoons and major floods in the country over the past several years.

Together with Empress Masako, he paid a visit in late December to the prefectures of Miyagi and Fukushima to offer encouragement to people affected by deadly Typhoon Hagibis in mid-October. He said Friday that he plans to make another visit to Tohoku.

During the news conference, the emperor offered words of sympathy to those who have been affected by disaster, including the Great East Japan Earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis in March 2011, which has displaced many and cost others their homes and property.

“Many of the victims carry (emotional) scars that haven’t healed yet,” he said.

The emperor also expressed his sympathy to those affected by the COVID-19 outbreak. Coronavirus fears forced the cancellation of the emperor’s public birthday celebration on Sunday, which would have included his first public address since his ascension to the throne on May 1.

The emperor acknowledged challenges in sustaining the imperial family as its numbers shrink but did not comment on the political debate surrounding the issue of changing the rules of succession. The 1947 Imperial House Law states that only males in the paternal line can ascend the throne. The Diet will resume discussion on imperial succession next month.

The imperial family now has only three male heirs: the emperor’s younger brother, Crown Prince Akishino, 54; the crown prince’s son, Prince Hisahito, 13; and Prince Hitachi, 84, the emperor’s uncle.

Amid the debate on the future of the imperial system, particular attention has been directed to the use of state funds to finance the Shinto religious rites linked to the elaborate enthronement process. The crown prince has been among critics of the existing system.

Emphasizing that the rites were unprecedented, the emperor said the yearlong series of ceremonies had been “thought out in consideration of the public’s interest.”

The emperor also expressed his concern about the deepening social issues Japan faces, including child abuse and poverty. He called for greater efforts toward integrating minority groups such as foreign residents, people with disabilities and those who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.

The emperor said he was hopeful about the Tokyo 2020 Olympics and Paralympics not only as sporting events, but also as a step toward creating an inclusive society.

“I am hopeful that for the Japanese, for youths in particular, the games will become a chance to enrich their understanding of the diverse world and to foster a global perspective, whereas for people from abroad, a chance to learn about Japan,” he said.

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