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Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko visited victims of last month's devastating earthquake in northern Japan on Saturday as strong aftershocks continued to rumble through the region.

The imperial couple stopped at a high school gymnasium converted into an evacuation center, kneeling down to speak with victims huddled on the floor among piles of blankets, cardboard boxes and mats.

The royal visit appeared to buoy the spirits of evacuees at the center in hard-hit Nagaoka. One woman wiped away tears as the empress offered words of comfort.

Nagaoka suffered a magnitude-6.8 quake on Oct. 23 and a series of large aftershocks. The quakes killed 39 people and injured more than 2,000.

It was the deadliest quake to hit Japan since 1995, when a magnitude-7.2 temblor killed 6,000 people in the western city of

More than 34,000 people were in emergency shelters Saturday in Niigata prefecture because their homes were destroyed in the disaster.

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