Japan's Imperial Household Agency said Friday it has decided to cancel Emperor Naruhito's annual New Year event at the Imperial Palace due to a recent spike in the number of new cases of the novel coronavirus.

It is the first time the event has been called off since 1990, when the country was mourning the death the previous year of Emperor Hirohito, the grandfather of the current emperor.

Japanese Emperor Naruhito, Empress Masako and their predecessors Akihito and Michiko greet the public at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo on Jan. 2, 2020. (Kyodo) ==Kyodo

The decision was made because of concern that it will draw huge crowds of people into confined spaces, many of whom are elderly who face a higher risk of contracting a severe form of the COVID-19 illness caused by the virus, among other reasons, the agency said.

At the event, which usually takes place on Jan. 2, the emperor, empress and other members of the imperial family greet thousands of well-wishers from a balcony at the palace in Tokyo.

Amid a resurgence of virus cases, with Japan's daily counts reaching record levels since last week, it is the latest in a series of imperial events to be canceled or postponed this year due to the global health crisis. The emperor's birthday address was also canceled in February, just days before it was scheduled.

At this year's New Year event, the first since Emperor Naruhito ascended to the throne in May 2019, he and Empress Masako, together with Crown Prince Fumihito and his family, greeted some 68,000 people.

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