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  1. ITV Report

Akihito abdication: As a country reeled, its emperor kneeled

Throughout his 30-year reign, Japan Emperor Akihito sought to live up to two key objectives.

In the first instance, the 85-year-old has endeavoured to achieve the goal of his "Heisei" era - which means "achieving peace".

The other is to try to bridge the divide behind the people of Japan and the imperial family.

And, many believe that as he stands down, he has gone a long way to fulfilling those aims.

As a country reeled, their emperor kneeled

It was in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake and tsunami and subsequent Fukushima nuclear plant disaster of 2011 that Emperor Akihito was able to show just how far the imperial family was prepared to embrace a more modern approach.

Being photographed on his knees in shelters, talking to "ordinary" people left homeless by the catastrophic events was extraordinary to many Japanese.

Emperor Akihito talks to evacuees at a shelter for survivors of the tsunami in Minamisanriku, north-eastern Japan. Credit: AP

As the country reeled from the disasters that left some 18,500 people dead or missing, Akihito addressed the nation on TV - the first time an emperor had addressed his people on television.

Emperor Akihito, left, and Empress Michiko talk with an evacuee at an evacuation centre in Tokyo. Credit: AP

Together with his wife, Michiko, the pair toured several areas and shelters established after the seismic events, happy to listen to those left homeless in an effort to bring some comfort.

During his 30 years on the throne, he reached out to the people, especially those who faced harship and discrimination, as well as those hit by disasters.

Akihito's TV address was followed by a visit to a shelter for survivors. Credit: AP

The common touch

He was the first emperor to marry a commoner when he and Michiko wed in 1959.

They had met 18 months earlier playing tennis - later dubbed the "love match" - and initially their romance was discouraged because Michiko was "too low born".

But Akihito refused to be deterred, eventually convincing the Imperial Household Council to approve their marriage.

The couple also chose to raise their three children instead of leaving them with palace staff, and have decided to be cremated upon their deaths in a smaller tomb side by side, also a tradition-breaking step.

Their efforts to become more 'normal' appear to have been recognised by the public.

"We came because today is the last day of (the emperor's era of) Heisei, and we feel nostalgic," said Akemi Yamauchi, 55, standing outside the palace with her husband.

"We like the current emperor. He has worked hard for the people, he is very thoughtful, and kind to everyone," said her husband, Kaname.

An emperor intent on achieving peace

In 1989, following his father's death, Akihito became emperor, and within a year was hosting a state banquet for the then leader of South Korea.

He stunned many by offering his "regret" for the suffering Japan brought upon South Korea during the Second World War.

He is the first emperor in Japan's modern history whose era did not have a war.

Though he has avoided outright apologies, he has stepped up his expressions of regret in carefully scripted statements on the war.

Akihito visited China in 1992 and offered what was considered the strongest expression of regret over Japan's actions during the war.

He also visited the Philippines and other Pacific islands conquered by Japan that were devastated in fierce fighting as the US-led allies took them back.

Then Chinese President Yang Shangkun, left, leads Emperor Akihito in 1992. Credit: AP

Jeff Kingston, Asian studies director at Temple University's Japan campus, said Akihito has served as Japan's "chief emissary of reconciliation", while acting as "consoler in chief" in reaching out to the people.

Akihito was also a "strong advocate of the vulnerable and the marginalised in the Japanese society", he said.

He added: "I think the people really warmed to him and felt that the monarchy was relevant to their lives because of these efforts by Akihito."