TOKYO (AP) — Japan’s Emperor Naruhito expressed concern about the impact the coronavirus pandemic has had on people’s health and livelihoods, noting that he has used online meetings to connect with people he could not console in person.

Naruhito had expressed hope to reach out to people and stay close to them as emperor, following the example of his father, Akihito, who abdicated in 2019 due to age. But Naruhito has largely retreated behind the palace moat due to the pandemic and made only limited public appearances, including the 75th anniversary of the end of the World War II in August.

“We have been at the mercy of the coronavirus pandemic over the past year,” Naruhito told a news conference for selected Japanese media ahead of his 61st birthday Tuesday. “Both I and (Empress) Masako are concerned about the pandemic that is not easily coming to an end.”

The Imperial Household Agency canceled the emperor’s customary public greetings from the palace balcony, and other palace events for his birthday were scaled down due to the pandemic.

Naruhito said he was concerned about people facing difficulties but expressed hope of a bright future when people overcome the pandemic.

Going online to connect with people and offer help, Naruhito said he has attended international conferences and virtually visited elderly care centers, hospitals and other places. “I found a new potential in the online activity and it was a major discovery,” Naruhito said.

Japan has counted about 426,500 cases of COVID-19 and 7,500 deaths, a toll lower than many advanced countries. It started vaccinations for the virus last week, belatedly beginning a campaign that is considered key to holding the delayed Tokyo Olympics this summer.