Japan’s Emperor Akihito has abdicated at the
age of 85 in a historic ceremony at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo.
In his last public address as emperor, the emperor handed over the symbols
of power and thanked the public for their support during his 30-year reign.
He was given permission to abdicate after saying he felt unable to fulfill
his role because of his age and declining health.
Akihito is the first Japanese monarch to stand down in more than 200 years.
He technically remained emperor until midnight, local time.
Crown Prince Naruhito, the emperor’s eldest son, formally ascends the throne
on May 1. A new era – called Reiwa, meaning order and harmony – will begin in
Japan’s unique calendar.
While the Japanese emperor holds no
political power, he serves as a national figurehead.
Akihito has endeared himself to many
people during his reign as he has interacted with those suffering from disease
In the morning, Akihito took part in
a Shinto ceremony to report his plans to the mythological ancestors of Japan’s
The main “Ceremony of the Abdication” took place in a state room
of the Imperial Palace in front of about 300 people including PM Shinzo Abe,
Crown Prince Naruhito, and Crown Princess Masako.
Imperial chamberlains carried the state and privy seals into the hall, along
with a sacred sword and a jewel which are considered symbols of the imperial
In a short ceremony, PM Shinzo Abe addressed the emperor, saying: “While keeping in our hearts the path
that the emperor has walked, we will make utmost efforts to create a bright
future for a proud Japan that is full of peace and hope.”
In his final speech as emperor, Akihito said: “I am deeply grateful for the people that accepted me as a symbol
and supported me.”
“I sincerely wish, together with the empress, that the
Reiwa era which begins tomorrow will be a stable and fruitful one,” he added.
“I pray, with all my heart, for peace and happiness for
all the people in Japan and around the world.”
Emperor Akihito had surgery for
prostate cancer in 2003 and a heart bypass operation in 2012.
In a rare speech in 2016, he said
that he feared his age would make it hard for him to carry out his duties and
strongly hinted that he wanted to stand down.
Opinion polls showed that the vast
majority of Japan sympathized with him, and a year later parliament enacted a
law that made his abdication possible.
Crown Prince Naruhito, 59, will
become Japan’s 126th emperor – and will officially lead the country into the
new Reiwa era. It will mark the end of the current Heisei era, which began when
Akihito ascended the throne in 1989.
Naruhito, an Oxford University graduate, is married to Crown Princess
Masako. Their only child, Princess Aiko, was born in 2001.
Japan’s current law prohibits women from inheriting the throne, so Princess
Aiko’s uncle Prince Fumihito is now first in line, followed by her cousin,
12-year-old Prince Hisahito.
Japan’s monarchy is the oldest continuing hereditary monarchy in the world.
Legends date it back to about 600 BC.
The emperors used to be seen as gods, but Hirohito – the father of Akihito –
publicly renounced his divinity as part of Japan’s surrender at the end of
World War Two.
It was Emperor Akihito who helped repair Japan’s post-war reputation.
Previous emperors rarely interacted with the public, but Akihito redefined
the role – and has come to be known for his compassion.
He also took up the role of a diplomat, becoming an unofficial ambassador
for Japan and travelling abroad extensively.
While Akihito’s abdication was the first in 200 years, it wasn’t so rare
According to Japan’s state broadcaster NHK, about half the emperors or empresses have done the same, and it happened frequently from the 8th Century to the 19th Century.
The emperor is constitutionally barred from making any political statements, so he could not say explicitly that he wanted to stand down as that would be considered comment on the law.
The newly passed law says that on abdication, the emperor’s son, Naruhito, will immediately take the Chrysanthemum Throne, but that neither he nor his successors would be allowed to abdicate under the law.
The government is yet to set a date for the abdication, but the bill says it must take place within three years of the law coming into effect.
The handover is widely expected take place in December 2018.
The emperor has no political powers but several official duties, such as greeting foreign dignitaries. Japan’s monarchy is entwined in the Shinto religion and the emperor still performs religious ceremonies.
Most support the emperor’s desire to abdicate – a survey by the Kyodo news agency after Akihito suggested he wanted to step down found more than 85% saying abdication should be legalized.
A discussion about whether or not a woman would be able to ascend the throne was triggered in 2006 when the emperor had no grandsons, but was postponed after a boy was born to the imperial family.
In a rare address to the nation in August 2016, Akihito said he was beginning to feel “various constraints such as in my physical fitness” which caused him to “contemplate on my role and my duties as the emperor in the days to come”.
The emperor is constitutionally barred from making any comments on politics, so he could not say explicitly that he wanted to stand down.
The bill approved by the cabinet on May 19 mentions the widespread public support for the emperor’s wishes, Japanese media reported.
It says that on abdication, Crown Prince Naruhito would immediately take the Chrysanthemum Throne, but that neither he nor his successors would be allowed to abdicate under the same law.
The government will set the date for the abdication, which is expected to be in December 2018.
Women are not allowed to inherit Japan’s throne and so Princess Aiko, the daughter of Crown Prince Naruhito, cannot succeed her father.
A debate about whether or not a woman should be able to ascend the throne was triggered in 2006 when the emperor had no grandsons, but was postponed after a boy was born to the imperial family.
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