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Originally published Saturday, December 22, 2012 at 9:57 PM

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Emperor turns 79, concerned about aging Japan

Japan's Emperor Akihito celebrated his 79th birthday Sunday and said he's concerned about the country's aging population.

Associated Press

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TOKYO —

Japan's Emperor Akihito celebrated his 79th birthday Sunday and said he's concerned about the country's aging population.

Akihito sympathized with the elderly in the country's snowy northern region who are facing their second winter since the 2011 earthquake and tsunami devastated the coastal area. Akihito and Empress Michiko spent nearly two months last year visiting disaster evacuees.

"One of the social issues of concern is the rapidly aging population. I believe that the problem is particularly serious in rural areas far away from the cities," Akihito said in a birthday statement. He noted that among many of Japan's dozens of snow-related fatalities last year were elderly people who died while shoveling snow.

"I myself noticed that I have become more prone to tripping while I was walking on mountain paths in recent years," he said.

Akihito also said his recovery from heart bypass surgery last February has taught him that exercise is important for the elderly to stay fit. Following his doctors' advice, he continues his morning strolls and exercises regularly.

"I realized the importance of rehabilitation," he said. "I had heard that among elderly (disaster) evacuees, those who used to be engaged in physical work such as agriculture or fishery became ill when there was little physical activity in their lives. After my surgery and rehabilitation, I could see how true this was."

Studies show that changes in lifestyle and lack of exercise have caused many elderly evacuees to fall ill or develop dementia. In the year following the disasters, the number of people in a dozen disaster-hit coastal towns certified as care recipients increased by 20 percent from the previous year, to more than 4,000, according to Iwate prefecture (state).

Akihito, a longtime tennis player, said he had trouble just running and hitting the ball when he returned to the sport after his surgery. Now, 10 months later, he can play nearly as well as he used to, he said.

He said he is so fit now that he is not considering reducing his public duties.

"I would like to maintain the status quo for the time being," he said.

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