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Japan imperial couple mark diamond anniversary

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Japan's Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko receiving Crown Prince Naruhito, Crown Princess Masako, Prince Akishino and Princess Kiko during a celebration marking 60th anniversary of their wedding at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo on Wednesday.

Tokyo

JAPANESE Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko celebrated their diamond anniversary on Wednesday, marking six decades of a marriage that helped modernise the monarchy.

Emperor Akihito, 85, will abdicate on April 30 and be succeeded by his elder son, Crown Prince Naruhito.

"Sixty shining years of mutual support" wrote the often-staid Nikkei business daily in a take-out on their marriage - including a photo of Empress Michiko, 84, calmly helping Emperor Akihito when he mixed up the pages of his speech at a recent ceremony.

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The fairy-tale romance that began on a tennis court and captured popular imagination also led to strains for Empress Michiko, the first commoner to marry an heir to the ancient Japanese throne.

"To break with tradition in Japan is extremely difficult," said Kazuo Oda, who was present when Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko met at a tennis match in August 1957, two years before they wed.

Their marriage, widely portrayed as a love-match, fanned hopes that Empress Michiko, the vibrant daughter of a wealthy businessman, would modernise the tradition-bound court.

In many ways, Empress Michiko did just that. She raised her two sons and daughter herself, even making them pack their school lunches. By tradition, royal children had been raised by wet nurses and royal helpers.

She also took the lead in a popular outreach to common folk including the elderly, handicapped and victims of disasters, often kneeling down to embrace or speak to people - a gesture that shocked conservatives but endeared her to the general public.

But the public picture was often marred by news of Empress Michiko's ill-health, which commentators and insiders attributed to harsh treatment by royal courtiers and her imperial mother-in-law.

Empress Michiko has often referred to her own "sadness and anxiety". "Living as crown princess and later empress was not an easy position for me by any means," she said in remarks ahead of her 84th birthday last October.

Emperor Akihito has often expressed his gratitude to Empress Michiko and on their 50th anniversary acknowledged he was not always "sufficiently considerate", given their different backgrounds.

"The empress suffered various rough times. That was natural given her position," said one acquaintance. "A lot of time has passed, but I think the emperor wonders what he should have done at those times."

The imperial couple was marking their anniversary with a series of low-key ceremonies including formal congratulations by family and officials and a dinner at the imperial palace. REUTERS