Here is a man. A small man — at 77, an old man — in a dark suit with an unremarkable voice, frequently glancing down at the sheaf of papers on his desk, which hold an address of plain words. It is the emperor of Japan.

To see him is not to see a president or prime minister, who trade in television appearances and winning turns of phrase. Until Emperor Akihito addressed his people Wednesday, he had never before delivered a televised speech. Not once in his two-decade reign. “I hope things will take a turn for the better,” he said to a nation that had just suffered a massive earthquake and nuclear plant disasters. “It is my hope that many lives will be saved.” His entire address was about five minutes long.

The Japanese monarchy is the oldest hereditary dynasty in the world, going back more than 2,000 years. Until World War II, emperors were considered to be arahitogami — incarnate deities, living gods. There were forms of speech that only emperors could use. Chin, an emperor would say, for “I,” and it was an “I” that was for no one else.

When Japan surrendered to the Allies in 1945, Akihito’s father, Emperor Hirohito, was forced to refute his divine status. As part of postwar negotiations he was allowed to retain his title, but only on a ceremonial basis. He became just a man, an emperor with no empire.