TOKYO : Japan’s Emperor Naruhito has pledged to fulfil his role as a “symbol of the state and unity”, in his first public address since taking the throne. The 59-year-old was speaking as he officially began his reign on Wednesday in a short but symbolic ceremony at the Imperial Palace. Naruhito succeeds his father, 85-year-old Akihito, who abdicated citing his age and failing health. He is the first Japanese emperor to stand down in more than 200 years. Akihito, who will now be known as Emperor Emeritus, had endeared himself to many Japanese people during his reign through his interactions with those suffering from disease and disaster. In his speech, Emperor Naruhito paid tribute to his father while pledging to show the same devotion to his people. “[Akihito] showed profound compassion through his own bearing,” he said. “I swear that I will reflect deeply on the course followed by the Emperor Emeritus ... and fulfil my responsibility as the symbol of the state and of the unity of the people of Japan.”

Naruhito technically became emperor at the stroke of midnight when his father’s reign came to an end - marking the start of the new Reiwa era.

But on Wednesday morning his place was formalised as he symbolically took possession of the sacred imperial regalia - a sword and a gem - that have been passed down through the generations. Japanese emperors do not wear a crown so these treasures, along with a mirror, act as a symbol of imperial power.

However the items used in the ceremony are duplicates - the real objects are kept in shrines around the country and never seen. Emperor Naruhito and his wife Masako Owada, a former diplomat, are expected to be more modern in their outlook.

The Oxford-educated royal said in a news conference in 2017 that he believed “that just as new winds blow in every age, the role of the imperial family changes in each age”. “I would like to learn various things from the past while also pursuing the ideal role that the Imperial Family should take in the future,” he said.

However, he is expected to carry on his father’s legacy - working to replicate the sense of closeness to the public that Emperor Akihito had built up. The Emperor and Empress reportedly met at a tea party and married in 1993.

Empress Masako was educated at Harvard and Oxford, and had a promising career as a diplomat before her marriage. Masako later told reporters that she had accepted Naruhito’s proposal after he said: “You might have fears and worries about joining the imperial household. But I will protect you for my entire life.”

They have one child, Princess Aiko, who was born in 2001. But Japanese law prohibits women from inheriting the throne.