TOKYO (AP) -- Japan's Emperor Akihito, who will abdicate the Chrysanthemum Throne and hand it to his son next year, was showered with cheers from tens of thousands of New Year's well-wishers Tuesday at the Imperial Palace.
"Happy New Year," the 84-year-old emperor said from a balcony. "I wish that this year will prove a gentle and spiritually fulfilling one for as many people as possible."
Crown Prince Naruhito and his wife, Masako, appeared at the emperor's side. Masako, a former diplomat, has suffered from stress and has often skipped public events, and it's unclear how she will manage her new role as empress.
The number of well-wishers totaled 126,720, up from 97,000 last year and a record for Akihito's reign, known as the era of Heisei, according to the Imperial Household Agency. A new emperor next year means Japan will enter another era, whose name will be selected with great fanfare.
Emperors have rarely abdicated in Japan, the last time being 200 years ago. Akihito's father, wartime Emperor Hirohito, died in 1989 of an illness.
Akihito's abdication was set last month for April 30, 2019, after he expressed his wish to retire because of his age and health concerns.
The New Year's appearance is a rare opportunity for the public to greet the emperor on palace grounds, and this year's had been expected to attract even more people than usual because of his retirement. The other such appearance he makes each year is for his birthday in December.
The emperor's role has been symbolic since Japan's defeat in World War II, and he and the imperial family have no political powers.
Naruhito and Masako have one child, Princess Aiko, but only males can inherit the throne. Masako has suffered stress-related problems, and it is widely believed criticism about not giving birth to an heir may have been a cause of her stress.
From the start, when Masako married Naruhito in 1993, the public was aware of the pressures she might face in the cloistered tradition-bound royal family. Naruhito, educated at Oxford, made a widely publicized remark that he would "protect Masako."
Naruhito has a younger brother who has a son among his three children.
Akihito and Empress Michiko, the first commoner to marry into the royal family, are popular in Japan.
Although Japan fought World War II in the name of the emperor, Akihito has always stood for peace. Hirohito had been viewed as divine. No one had even heard his voice until the nation's defeat in 1945.
Before the royal couple retires, they are expected to visit places that commemorate peace, as well as people who fled their homes after the 2011 tsunami set off a nuclear disaster in northeastern Japan.
Also in the spotlight during this year's balcony appearance was Princess Mako, the emperor's granddaughter and Naruhito's niece, who announced last year that she will marry Kei Komuro, a legal assistant, who attended the same university in Tokyo as Mako.
The wedding is set for later this year. Once they marry, Mako will no longer be a princess and won't take part in the annual New Year's appearances.