Japan emperor recalls 2011 as 'truly distressing year'

TOKYO, December 23, 2011 (AFP) - Japan's Emperor Akihito marked his 78th birthday on Friday by recalling a "truly distressing year" but praising the unity of the Japanese people in overcoming March's earthquake-tsunami-nuclear disasters.

In his birthday message, the monarch also called on the nation to prepare for any more disasters and reflect on its wartime past to strive for peace.

However, while he did not give his customary news conference owing to a recent illness he released a statement on his "reflections" and appeared with his family on the balcony of the Imperial Palace to greet thousands of well-wishers and give a short speech.

"This has been a truly distressing year, dominated by disasters" he said in his statement, remembering the March 11 catastrophe as well as heavy rains and floods that hit wide areas of the country in the middle of the year.

"However it has been encouraging to note that the people in the afflicted areas are enduring the harsh conditions in evacuation and that many people are volunteering to support the victims," he said.

"I feel that the Japanese people have come together as a nation to squarely face the disaster and do what they can to be of help for the victims."

The 9.0-magnitude quake and monster tsunami ravaged the country's northeast, killing nearly 20,000 people, and crippled a nuclear power plant which has been since leaking radiation into the environment.

Akihito, who ascended to the throne in 1989 following the death of his father Hirohito, has played a role in keeping with his status defined by the US-inspired post-war constitution as a "symbol of the state and of the unity of the people."

His role may be largely ceremonial but he is held in deep regard by many Japanese.

The emperor and 77-year-old Empress Michiko travelled to the disasters zones every week for seven weeks since late March, comforting victims at evacuation centres, as they did after past disasters including the 1995 Kobe earthquake.

However, he has been ill recently and last month underwent 18 days of treatment for bronchial pneumonia.