TOKYO Japanese Emperor Akihito made an unprecedented televised address to his disaster-stricken nation on Wednesday, expressing deep worry about the crisis at damaged nuclear reactors and urging people to lend each other a helping hand in difficult times.
Looking somber and stoic, the 77-year-old Akihito said the problems at Japan's nuclear-power reactors, where authorities are battling to prevent a catastrophe, were unpredictable after an earthquake he described as "unprecedented in scale."
TV stations interrupted coverage to carry the emperor's first public appearance since last week's massive earthquake and tsunami that killed thousands of people.
"I am deeply hurt by the grievous situation in the affected areas. The number of deceased and missing increases by the day and we cannot know how many victims there will be. My hope is that as many people possible are found safe," Akihito said.
"I hope from the bottom of my heart that the people will, hand in hand, treat each other with compassion and overcome these difficult times," he said, urging survivors not to "abandon hope."
Japan is reeling from what Prime Minister Naoto Kan has called its worst crisis since the end of World War Two, when the country had to rebuild from its devastating defeat.
For elderly Japanese at least, the sudden message from the emperor doubtless called to mind the August 15, 1945, radio broadcast by his father, Emperor Hirohito, announcing the country's surrender in World War Two.
That was the first time the emperor's voice had been heard on radio and his use of formal court language meant most of those listening could not understand what he was saying.
CONSOLING THE PUBLIC
"This earthquake was worse than the Great Kanto Earthquake (in 1923) ... It's never been experienced before," said Miiko Kodama, an expert in media studies. "This is a symbol of that."
She added: "Of course, nothing changes as a result of his message, but for those who believe in the emperor, they will be encouraged."
Conservative Japanese revere the emperor, others feel a fond affection, and still others find the royal family irrelevant.
The plight of hundreds of thousands left homeless by the quake and tsunami that followed worsened overnight after a cold snap brought snow to some of the worst-stricken areas. The death toll stands at 4,000, but more than 7,000 are listed as missing and the figure is expected to rise.
Akihito said he was "deeply worried" about the situation at the Daiichi nuclear plant in Fukushima, 240 km (150 miles) north of Tokyo, where workers were trying to contain the world's worst nuclear crisis since the Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine in 1986.
The emperor and Empress Michiko have long played a role comforting the public in tough times, visiting the survivors of the massive quake that killed 6,400 people in the western port of Kobe in 1995.
Akihito, who ascended the throne after the death of his father in 1989, has striven to draw the imperial family closer to the people in image, if not in fact.
In a sharp break with tradition, he was the first heir to marry a commoner.
Akihito gives pre-recorded news conferences on set occasions such as his birthday and before overseas trips, but the suddenness of the message, its simultaneous airing on nationwide TV and its content were unprecedented.
The Imperial Household Agency, which manages the royals' affairs, said in a statement on Monday that the royal couple wanted to visit the quake-hit sites but felt that efforts should focus on rescue for now.
(Additional reporting by Chisa Fujioka, Writing by Linda Sieg; Editing by Nick Macfie)