Japan's emperor greeted thousands of well-wishers on his 76th birthday Wednesday, expressing hopes for brighter days ahead as the nation struggles to shake off its worst recession since World War II.
Although the world's second biggest economy is technically growing, a vicious cycle of falling wages, spending and prices threatens to derail its future.
"The severe economic conditions have led to many difficulties," Akihito said from a balcony at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo. "There seem to be many people who are struggling. I hope the coming year will be even a little better."
He made three such appearances during the day Wednesday, accompanied by Empress Michiko, Crown Prince Naruhito, Prince Akishino and their wives.
Akihito assured the flag-waving crowds that his health had gradually improved. Last year, the emperor marked his 75th birthday after a series of illnesses including prostate cancer, an irregular pulse and internal bleeding.
The emperor lightened his official schedule this year, though managed to make his first overseas trip in two years. He and the empress visited Canada and Hawaii for two weeks in July.
"My health is now better than it was last December, and I would like to spend the coming year as I did this year, and I will try not to give people cause for concern," Akihito said in a statement issued by the Imperial Household Agency.
Akihito marked his 20th year on the Chrysanthemum Throne _ the world's oldest hereditary monarchy _ in November.
The throne has undergone major changes since World War II, when his father Hirohito was officially considered a living god. Hirohito renounced his divinity under the Allied occupation, and his role was redefined as that of a ceremonial symbol of the unity of the nation, without significant political powers.
Akihito canceled a news conference traditionally held about a week before his birthday. The Imperial Household Agency noted that the royal couple answered journalists' questions just last month, according to Kyodo News agency.
Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama and other top officials are scheduled to visit the Imperial Palace throughout the day to offer their birthday greetings. The emperor's birthday is observed as a national holiday.