Survivors of World War II and natural disasters expressed Friday words of appreciation for Emperor Akihito while wishing him good health as the Cabinet of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe formally approved his abdication on April 30, 2019.
The emperor, who will turn 84 on Dec. 23, and Empress Michiko, 83, have dedicated themselves for decades to offering support to vulnerable people. The couple has traveled across Japan and abroad to commemorate those who perished in the war and to offer words of comfort to disaster victims.
"I think he must have felt a huge responsibility as Japan's symbol. I hope he will take it easy for the rest of his life," said Masakatsu Takara, the 77-year-old chief of the Tsushima Maru Memorial Museum in southern Japan's Okinawa Prefecture.
Takara escorted the emperor and empress during their visit in June 2014 to the museum, which commemorates about 1,500 people, including hundreds of schoolchildren who were killed in the 1944 sinking of a Japanese ship in a U.S. submarine torpedo attack during World War II.
Hiroshi Harada, a 78-year-old survivor of the 1945 U.S. atomic bombing of Hiroshima, recounted the day when he guided the emperor at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum as its director in May 1995.
"The emperor looked me in the eye and sincerely listened to my story," he said. When the emperor visited Hiroshima in July the same year, he stopped by and told Harada, "Your activities are very important," according to the former director.
The abdication date was set after the emperor signaled his wish to retire in a rare video message in August 2016, citing his advanced age and weakening health.
Despite his age, the emperor, along with the empress, has often in recent years visited areas hit by disasters including the March 2011 massive earthquake and tsunami that devastated northeastern Japan and the April 2016 temblors that hit Kumamoto Prefecture in southwestern Japan.
Masafumi Sakanashi, the 58-year-old principal of a junior high school in Kumamoto, which served as an evacuation center and was visited by the emperor a month after the 2016 quakes, said, "I felt he was very considerate because he was talking to each person."
"I hope he will stay healthy even after his retirement," he added.
On Friday, the emperor and the empress visited a company affiliated with a department store operator in Tokyo's Shinjuku district to see the work of handicapped people, in a week dedicated to promoting social understanding about the disabled.
Local residents welcomed the imperial couple and took to the streets to catch a glimpse of them.
Among them, 78-year-old Junichi Kamei said, "Considering his age, he could have abdicated much earlier. I am relieved that I could see him in good shape today."
Mitsuyo Kobayashi, a 65-year-old resident who was also at the scene, said, "I will miss him serving as emperor."
Meanwhile, people close to Crown Prince Naruhito and his wife Crown Princess Masako expressed hope that the new imperial couple will continue to interact with citizens in a casual manner even after the crown prince takes the throne in May 2019.
Kenzo Hiroki, a former secretary-general of the U.N. Secretary General's Advisory Board on Water and Sanitation, said the crown prince, who served as the honorary president of the board, has "deepened through the lens of water (management) his understanding about the global environment and poverty as well as his wish for peace."
The crown prince, a researcher who considers water issues his life's work, "is an avid listener," the 58-year-old Hiroki said. "His gentle personality endeared him to researchers and workers of international organizations from around the world engaged in water issues."
Nobutoshi Noma, 58, a cram school manager who was the crown prince's elementary school classmate, described the prince as an "earnest and honest" person.
"I believe he will continue to openly communicate with people in Japan and abroad" as he did during a June visit to Denmark where he accepted a request by a local citizen to pose for a selfie , Noma said.
Having been diagnosed with adjustment disorder, Princess Masako has been receiving treatment since December 2003. But her condition has been improving recently and she has participated in more public duties including overnight trips, according to people close to her.
In November, the crown prince and crown princess visited the town of Manno in western Japan's Kagawa Prefecture for a festival promoting a tree-planting campaign.
Manno Mayor Takayoshi Kurita, 64, said the couple smiled and talked to each child despite cold weather on the festival day. "I want them to take care of their health and travel across Japan to watch over Japanese people," he said.
Ines Mallari, chairman of a federation of Japanese-Filipinos in the Philippines, said she was sad to see the emperor abdicate but understood his situation and wished him a long life.
"I want to cherish the path of peace that His Majesty has been walking," said the 46-year-old third-generation Japanese-Filipino, who met the emperor when he visited the country in January last year.
Many Japanese-Filipinos were separated from their families during wartime and they suffered from anti-Japanese discrimination and economic difficulties that persisted deeply after the war.
"We have painful memories as Japanese-Filipinos, but His Majesty knew our hardships well, I was glad to be in his heart," Mallari said, referring him as a gentle father who gave her pride in being a Japanese-Filipino.