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Japan’s Emperor Naruhito mourns Noto quake

Japan’s Emperor Naruhito, from left, Empress Masako and their daughter Princess Aiko wave to well-wishers from the balcony of the Imperial Palace in Tokyo on Friday, Feb. 23, 2024. PHOTO: AP

TOKYO (AP) — Japan’s Emperor Naruhito made his first speech to the nation since a deadly earthquake hit the north-central region of Koto, with a message marking his 64th birthday on Friday.

The ceremonial monarch expressed grief for people affected by the January 1 earthquake, praying for their recovery and saying he hoped to visit the region to console them.

Naruhito’s last scheduled national address, an annual New Year event, was cancelled because of the quake. The emperor and his wife have not yet visited the disaster zone. The palace told NHK Television that the couple feared a visit would disrupt recovery efforts, and are currently planning a trip in late March.

Cheering well-wishers gathered at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo despite cold, rainy weather.

“I would like once again to express my condolences to those who lost their lives in the Noto Peninsula earthquake last month and to convey my heartfelt sympathy to the bereaved families and those who were affected by the disaster,” Naruhito said from a balcony, accompanied by his wife, Empress Masako, their only child Aiko and other relatives. “I wish every one of you a peaceful spring.”

The magnitude 7.6 quake on New Year’s Day killed 241 people and drove more than 12,000 people from their homes. Nine people are still missing. Reconstruction has come slowly in a largely rural area with an ageing population, known for Wajima lacquerware and other handicrafts.

A video released Friday by the Imperial Household Agency showed Naruhito and Masako admiring lacquerware boxes from Noto, with a big round lacquer tray and a Suzu pottery vase, also from the region, placed behind them.

Naruhito, in a pre-recorded press conference released Friday, also said he hoped to visit the area with Masako when the local situation allows.

“The difficult situation is continuing, but I sincerely hope many people will provide support for the steady progress of recovery and reconstruction,” Naruhito said.

Naruhito, who will mark the fifth anniversary of his ascension to the Chrysanthemum Throne on May 1, said he has sought to stay as close to the people as possible. But that’s slow going for the traditionally remote Japanese monarchy: a proposal to open social media accounts for the Imperial family has been under discussion since last year.

Since the Noto earthquake, he’s made only one other public appearance, at an event marking the 150th anniversary of the Tokyo police in mid-January.

Naruhito also acknowledged that the number of royals who can perform public duties is on the decline.

The imperial household is shrinking rapidly, owing to rules that allow only men to inherit the throne and expel female royals who marry outside the family. Naruhito currently has only two younger potential successors — his brother Akishino, 58, and his nephew Hisahito, 17. A third potential heir, his uncle Prince Hitachi, is 88.

The situation has raised questions about the future of Japan’s monarchy and triggered calls to allow female royals to remain in the family after marriage or inherit the throne. The conservative governing party is discussing proposals that would allow more people to remain in the family but keep male-only inheritance.

“The situation is a matter that is related to the future of the Imperial Family,” Naruhito said, but declined to comment on the system. The Japanese emperor is not allowed to comment on politics.