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Japanese emperor greets crowd at palace after COVID hiatus

TOKYO (AP) — Japan’s Emperor Naruhito and his family waved to throngs of New Year’s well-wishers from the balcony at the Imperial Palace on Monday in the return of a celebration halted for the past two years by the pandemic.

Naruhito offered prayers for people’s happiness and world peace in the appearance Monday beside his wife, Empress Masako, and their daughter.

Princess Aiko, who turned 21 in December, was appearing in her first New Year’s public greeting. Legal adulthood is 20 in Japan and a condition for taking part in some events featuring the emperor’s family.

Also standing by was Emperor Emeritus Akihito, who abdicated in favor of his son in 2019, and his wife, Empress Emerita Michiko.

Naruhito noted the past few years had been filled with hardships brought on by the pandemic.

“These must have been hard times for many of you,” he told the crowd below, many waving small Japanese flags.

For the last two years, the emperor skipped the public greeting and instead sent video messages. Only those who applied and were selected in advance were allowed in the Imperial Palace grounds this year because of pandemic restrictions on large crowds.

In September, Naruhito made his first trip abroad since the pandemic and since he ascended to the Chrysanthemum Throne, to attend the state funeral of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II.

Naruhito studied at Oxford University and plays Western classical music, and his family has built close relations with British royalty.

The emperor does not have political power but carries symbolic significance for Japan, and he is generally welcomed adoringly by Japanese people when he attends cultural events and makes other public appearances.

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