Emperor Akihoto said declining health may hinder ability to fulfill his duties, in sign of possible future abdication.
Japanese Emperor Akihito, 82, said in a rare video address to the public that he worried his age may make it difficult for him to fully carry out his duties.
In nationally televised remarks on Monday, Akihito also said there were limits to reducing the emperor’s duties as the "symbol of the state", the status accorded to the monarch under Japan’s post-war constitution.
Public broadcaster NHK reported last month that Akihito, who has had heart surgery and been treated for prostate cancer, wanted to step down in a few years - a move that would be unprecedented in modern Japan.
Once considered divine, the emperor is defined in the constitution as a symbol of the state and the unity of the people, and has no political power.
Akihito stopped short of saying outright that he wanted to abdicate, which could be interpreted as interfering in politics.
"When I consider that my fitness level is gradually declining, I am worried that it may become difficult for me to carry out my duties as the symbol of the state with my whole being, as I have done until now," he said.
An English translation of his remarks was issued by the Imperial Household Agency, which manages his affairs.
Akihito is said to feel strongly that an emperor’s full performance of his duties is integral to his constitutional role, experts say.
Opinion polls show the vast majority of ordinary Japanese sympathise with the emperor’s desire to retire, but this would need legal changes.
The idea has sparked opposition from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s conservative base, which worries that debate on the imperial family’s future could widen to the topic of letting women inherit and pass on the throne, anathema to traditionalists.
Speculation about Akihito’s future started last month with reports that he had told confidantes that his advancing age was making it harder to perform ceremonial duties and that he would like to step down in a few years.
The origins of Japan’s monarchy, said to be the world’s oldest hereditary monarchy, are ancient and legend says that it is an unbroken line going back some 2,600 years.
It is deeply ingrained in the nation’s native Shinto religion and it comes with numerous ritual duties, including planting rice in a field within the palace grounds.
The speech comes during an annual time of sensitivity with August being a month of remembrance. Japan commemorated the US atomic bombing of Hiroshima on Saturday and does so again on Tuesday for Nagasaki.
Next Monday, the country will mark the 71st anniversary of its defeat in World War II, an annual event at which the emperor delivers a speech.
Akihito was 11 years old when the war ended and witnessed the destruction it brought to Japan.
He has keenly embraced the role of symbolic sovereign and is credited with making efforts to seek reconciliation both at home and abroad over the legacy of the war fought in his father’s name.
He has visited places that saw some of the most intense fighting, including Okinawa at home and Saipan, Palau and the Philippines abroad, offering prayers for the souls of all the dead, not just Japanese.
Any move by Akihito to step down appears to have wide public support. A survey by Kyodo News last week showed that 85.7 percent of people surveyed were in favour of legal changes that would allow abdication.
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