TOKYO (AP) — Japan's Emperor Akihito, who is handing the Chrysanthemum Throne 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 appeared at the emperor's side. Masako, a former diplomat, has suffered from stress and has often skipped public events. It's unclear how she will step up to her upcoming role as empress.

Emperors have rarely abdicated in Japan, the last being 200 years ago. Akihito's father, wartime Emperor Hirohito, died in 1989 of an illness.

Akihito's abdication was set 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 was expected to attract even more people than usual because of his retirement. The other such appearance he makes is for his birthday in December.

The emperor's role has been symbolic after Japan's defeat in World War II, and he and the imperial family have no political powers.

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