Emperor Naruhito, on the occasion of his 64th birthday on Friday, mourned the lives lost in a powerful earthquake that struck central Japan on New Year's Day and extended his sympathy to the people displaced.

The emperor expressed his desire to visit areas affected by the disaster on the Noto Peninsula in Ishikawa Prefecture with his wife Empress Masako.

"My heart truly aches for the many people who have been affected and those who have been forced to evacuate," he said at a press conference at the Imperial Palace ahead of his birthday.

The emperor added that he hopes "recovery and reconstruction will progress smoothly," and expressed his appreciation for the hardworking professionals engaged in relief efforts and medical support.

Emperor Naruhito speaks at a press conference at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo on Feb. 21, 2024. (Pool photo)(Kyodo)

Reflecting on positive developments over the past year, the emperor touched on the easing of novel coronavirus restrictions as the government in May downgraded the legal status of COVID-19 to the same category as seasonal influenza.

"It was a year in which we could clearly see bright developments in the process of people's daily lives returning to normalcy," he said.

The emperor said he was pleased to resume his duties of attending various ceremonies and events in line with the easing of COVID restrictions.

"I had heartwarming moments when I directly listened to a variety of people and saw their smiles at the places I went," he said.

In June last year, the emperor visited Iwate Prefecture, northeastern Japan, to attend the national tree-planting festival and had conversations with people who experienced the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami disaster.

"I was touched by their tireless efforts despite numerous challenges," he said.

Regarding his family, he said, "I would like to convey my gratitude to Masako after having spent 30 years with her and ask for her continued support."

The empress has been struggling with adjustment disorder since December 2003 when she was still the crown princess and rarely appeared in public. Since becoming empress, her attendance at events and ceremonies has increased.

(From L) Japanese Emperor Naruhito, Empress Masako and their daughter Princess Aiko appear on a balcony at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo from where they greeted a crowd gathered to celebrate the emperor's 64th birthday on Feb. 23, 2024. (Kyodo) ==Kyodo

In a statement last year, her doctors noted that she is in the process of recovery, although her condition fluctuates.

The emperor said he was happy to hear that their only child, Princess Aiko, 22, had decided to join the Japanese Red Cross Society in April.

"I hope she will further broaden her horizons by gaining various experiences," he said.

The emperor, together with other members of the imperial family, waved to well-wishers from a balcony at the palace on Friday morning.

A total of 14,000 people attended three greeting sessions, with some 2,400 people signing the greeting book.

The emperor expressed in a speech his condolences to those who lost their lives in the quake.

He told the visitors that he felt grateful for them attending in the rain and, "I wish you all good health and happiness."

While those wishing to attend did not need to apply in advance, unlike last year, the number of people allowed entry to each of the three greeting sessions was capped at 20,000 to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

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