TOKYO (AP) — Japan's Emperor Naruhito waved to cheering, flag-waving crowds from a palace balcony Thursday in his first New Year's greeting since ascending to the throne.

Naruhito and his wife Masako were joined by his parents, the former Emperor Akihito and his wife Michiko, in the appearance at the Imperial Palace. The 86-year-old Akihito stepped down in April last year in an extremely rare imperial abdication.

Naruhito told the crowd he was praying for world peace and noted the suffering of people in Japan affected by natural disasters last year.

“I hope this new year will be a year free of disasters, peaceful and good for all of you," he said.

The public is closely watching how the younger and more international Naruhito and his wife might bring more openness to the imperial role, which holds no political power but is widely recognized as a cultural and emotional symbol for Japan.

Naruhito attended Oxford and Masako is a Harvard-educated former diplomat.

Akihito's final New Year's appearance as emperor last year drew more than 150,000 people, a record for his reign.

Public broadcaster NHK TV said some 55,000 people had thronged the palace to cheer the imperial family by late Thursday morning. More were expected throughout the day.

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Yuri Kageyama is on Twitter at https://twitter.com/yurikageyama

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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