Emperor Akihito marks last birthday before abdication, urges Japan to welcome foreign workers

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Published 24.12.2018 13:24
Japan's Emperor Akihito (3L), accompanied by his wife Empress Michiko and their family members, waves to well-wishers as they appear on the balcony of the Imperial Palace to mark the emperor's 85th birthday in Tokyo Sunday, Dec. 23, 2018. (AP Photo)
Japan's Emperor Akihito (3L), accompanied by his wife Empress Michiko and their family members, waves to well-wishers as they appear on the balcony of the Imperial Palace to mark the emperor's 85th birthday in Tokyo Sunday, Dec. 23, 2018. (AP Photo)

More than 75,000 well-wishers paid their respects to Emperor Akihito who turned 85 on Sunday, his last birthday celebration at Tokyo's Imperial Palace before stepping down next year.

The birthday of the emperor, whose position is ceremonial with no political power, is traditionally marked by a national holiday and an address at the palace, which opens to the public on the day.

The morning crowd of 75,490, according to the Imperial Household Agency, was the largest birthday attendance during Akihito's three-decade reign, known as the "Heisei" era, which means "achieving peace" in Japanese.

"It gives my deep comfort that the Heisei era is coming to an end, free of war in Japan," Akihito, his voice trembling with emotion, said at a news conference at the palace that was recorded this past week and released Sunday. "It is important not to forget that countless lives were lost in World War II and that the peace and prosperity of postwar Japan was built upon the numerous sacrifices and tireless efforts made by the Japanese people, and to pass on this history accurately to those born after the war."

Akihito's 30-year reign of the Heisei is the only era without war in Japan's modern history. Praying for peace and making amends for a war fought in the name of his father, Hirohito, has become a career mission for Akihito, who succeeded the throne in 1989.

Akihito - flanked by his wife, eldest son Cown Prince Naruhito and other members of the imperial family on a balcony - addressed well-wishers waving small Japanese flags and holding up smartphones.

"My thoughts go out to those who have lost family members or those close to them, or have suffered damage and whose lives are currently impaired," he said, referring to the natural disasters that hit Japan in the past year.

Earthquakes, severe storms and heatwaves killed hundreds of people, destroyed homes and disrupted supply chains, clouding the outlook for Japan's export-reliant economy.

Along with Empress Michiko, Akihito has spent much of his reign addressing the legacy of World War Two, which was fought in the name of his father, Hirohito, and consoling victims of natural disasters.

"I would like to thank him for standing by us, the Japanese people, and would like him to rest and enjoy his time from now on," said 46-year-old Kazuyo Toyama from Nagoya.

Akihito, who has had heart surgery and treatment for prostate cancer, is scheduled to step down on April 30, passing the Chrysanthemum Throne to 58-year-old Crown Prince Naruhito. The last time a Japanese emperor abdicated was in 1817.

Although he cannot directly influence government policy, Akihito has created a broader consciousness of Japan's wartime past throughout his symbolic reign, experts said. His conciliatory stance contrasts with gestures made by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who has adopted a less apologetic tone over Japan's past military aggression.

Akihito also referred to foreign workers, saying he hoped that "the Japanese people will be able to warmly welcome as members of our society those who come to Japan to work".

Japan enacted a law this month to let in more foreign, blue-collar workers to ease a labor shortage, despite criticism it was too hastily crafted and risked exposing the workers to exploitation.

As emperor, Akihito has made unprecedented visits to the Philippines and other Pacific islands conquered by Japan early in World War II and devastated in fierce fighting as the U.S.-led allies took them back. Though Akihito has avoided a direct apology, he has subtly stepped up his expressions of regret in recent years in carefully scripted statements on the war.

Akihito said he won't forget those trips with his wife, Empress Michiko, and thanked those counties for welcoming them despite their bitter memories of the war. "I am grateful to each of those countries for welcoming us with warm hospitality," he said.

At home, Akihito particularly cared about Okinawa's difficult history. The small southern island was the only site of ground battle in Japan. Okinawa was under U.S. occupation until 1972, two decades behind the mainland, and is still burdened with American troops stationed in Japan. Okinawans feel they have been sacrificed for the mainland as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's pro-U.S. government is currently forcing a relocation of disputed Marine Corps air station on Okinawa's eastern coast.

During his father's reign, Akihito himself was almost hit by a Molotov cocktail on a 1975 visit to Okinawa, where tens of thousands of civilians died in intense fighting near the end of World War II. He and Michiko studied the history and culture of Okinawa and kept visiting.

"Okinawa has experienced a long history of hardships, including what happened there during the war," he said. "We are committed to continue to care for the sacrifices that the people of Okinawa have endured over the years, and that commitment will remain unchanged in the future."

Akihito's pacifist image and his compassion for disaster victims, the handicapped and the minorities have gained public support for him and his family. Experts say Akihito's pacifist views may have come from his childhood wartime experiences.

Akihito was 11 years old when he heard his father's voice announcing Japan's World War II surrender on the radio on Aug. 15, 1945. During the subsequent U.S. occupation of Japan, he was tutored in English by Elizabeth Vining, a Quaker, an experience that experts say gave Akihito his pacifist and democratic outlook.

In recently released wartime diaries and notes of schoolteacher Koichi Suzuki, who taught Akihito and his classmates during their evacuation outside of Tokyo in the last two years of the war, Akihito's life is removed from his parents amid food shortages and frequent air raid sirens.

On Aug. 13, 1945, Akihito and Suzuki had to run up the hill as eight U.S. warplanes flew above them the moment they jumped into an unfinished bunker, Suzuki wrote. His April 17, 1946 note showed Akihito read a haiku about the people living in barracks in the devastated neighborhood under the falling snow.

Akihito, in his birthday message, fondly recalled receiving many dignitaries visiting Japan after its return to international society with the signing of the 1952 San Francisco peace treaty.

Akihito is the first emperor enthroned under Japan's postwar pacifist constitution as the symbol with no political power, unlike his father, who was revered as a god until the end of the war. As crown prince and emperor, Akihito has tried to bring the secluded palace close to the people, and thanked everyone including his wife Michiko, a commoner, for understanding his views and supporting his work.

"As I come to the end of my journey as emperor, I would like to thank from the bottom of my heart the many people who accepted and continued to support me as the symbol of the state," he said, and reiterated his respect and adherence to the war-renouncing charter and his symbolic role.

"I intend to carry out my duties in that capacity and shall continue to contemplate this question as I perform my day-to-day duties until the day of my abdication," he said.

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