The country’s symbolic leader, who has no political power, appeared emotional as he gave his traditional public address at the Imperial Palace during the national holiday.
His eldest son, Crown Prince Naruhito Naruhito, will succeed to the Chrysanthemum Throne on 1 May next year.
As the crowd waved Japanese flags and took photos using smartphones, Akihito said: ”It gives me deep comfort that the Heisei era (his reign) is coming to an end, free of war in Japan.
“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 was seven years old when Japan entered the Second World War by launching the surprise attack on Pearl Harbour on 7 December 1941. Four years later he heard his father’s voice announcing Japan’s World War II surrender on the radio.
During the US occupation of Japan, he was taught English by a Quaker, Elizabeth Vining. Experts believe this experience gave Akihito his pacifist and democratic outlook.
In his birthday message, he fondly recalled receiving many dignitaries visiting Japan after its return to international society with the signing of the 1952 San Francisco peace treaty.
Flanked by his wife, Naruhito and other members of the imperial family, he added: “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.
“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 also paid tribute to those whose lives had been affected by the earthquakes, severe storms and heatwaves that killed hundreds of people and damaged homes and businesses in the past year.
“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 island of Okinawa, where US troops are still stationed, he told the crowd: ”Okinawa has experienced a long history of hardships, including what happened there during the war. 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.”
He went on to say that he hoped Japan would be able to welcome immigrants to the country under new legislation to ease a labour shortage caused by the ageing population.
Akihito, who has had heart surgery and treatment for prostate cancer, is the first Japanese emperor to abdicate since 1817.
“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 well-wisher Kazuyo Toyama from Nagoya.
Additional reporting by Reuters and Associated Press
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