Akihito gives last New Year’s address

Emperor Akihito and Prince Naruhito
Japan’s Emperor Akihito (R) and Crown Prince Naruhito wave to well-wishers at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo on January 2 during New Year’s greetings. AFP

TOKYO — Japan’s Emperor Akihito delivered his final New Year’s address Wednesday before his abdication later this year, telling tens of thousands of well-wishers he was praying for peace.

The Imperial Palace said more then 72,000 people flocked to the royal residence on Wednesday morning alone, with many more still arriving for a final chance to see the 85-year-old royal deliver his traditional new year’s greeting.

The emperor will become the first Japanese monarch to abdicate in around two centuries when he steps down from the throne on April 30, ending his three-decade reign.

“I’m sincerely glad to celebrate the new year together with you under the clear sky,” he told thousands of people, many waving Japanese flags and shouting “Banzai” or “long live.”

“I pray for the peace and happiness of the people of our country and the world,” the soft-spoken Akihito added, flanked by Empress Michiko and other family members.

The emperor delivers a brief New Year’s greeting every year, and was expected to appear five times on Wednesday to address as many well-wishers as possible.

Some in the morning crowd yelled “Thank you very much” as the emperor waved, while others sang the national anthem. One woman in the front row shed tears as she looked up at the balcony.

His eldest son, Crown Prince Naruhito, is set to ascend the Chrysanthemum Throne a day after his father’s abdication, continuing the rule of the world’s oldest imperial family.