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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 and disaster.

In the morning, Akihito took part in a Shinto ceremony to report his plans to the mythological ancestors of Japan’s imperial family.

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 family.

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.

Japan Emperor Akihito Suggests Abdication in Rare TV Address

Japan’s Emperor Akihito had a successful bypass operation

Emperor Akihito’s Abdication Approved by Japan’s Government

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 historically.

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.

Japan’s Emperor Akihito has made a step closer to his abdication after the government has approved a one-off bill.

In 2016, Emperor Akihito, 83, said that his age and health were making it hard for him to fulfill his official duties.

However, there is no provision under existing law for the emperor to abdicate and be succeeded by Crown Prince Naruhito.

The bill will now pass to the parliament, where it is widely expected to be passed.

It would be the first time a Japanese emperor has stepped down since Emperor Kokaku in 1817.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters on May 19 that the government “hopes for the smooth passage of the legislation”.

Emperor Akihito, who has had heart surgery and was treated for prostate cancer, has been on the throne since the death of his father, Hirohito, in 1989 and is loved and revered by many Japanese.

Image source Wikipedia

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.

The discussion about the role of royal women arose again this week when it was announced that Princess Mako – Akihito’s eldest grandchild and Prince Fumihito’s daughter – was to be engaged to a commoner.

Under Japanese law, Princess Mako, 25, will have to give up her royal status and enter private life after her marriage.

In a rare TV address to Japan, Emperor Akihito has strongly indicated he wants to step down, saying he fears his age will make it difficult to fulfill his duties.

His comments came in only his second-ever TV address to the public.

Emperor Akihito, 82, did not explicitly say he wanted to abdicate as it could be interpreted as political interference.

Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said the government would take the remarks “seriously” and discuss what could be done.

“Upon reflecting how he handles his official duty and so on, his age and the current situation of how he works, I do respect the heavy responsibility the emperor must be feeling and I believe we need to think hard about what we can do,” he said.

Japanese Emperor Akihito has undergone a successful heart bypass operation at the University of Tokyo Hospital

Japanese Emperor Akihito has undergone a successful heart bypass operation at the University of Tokyo Hospital

Emperor Akihito, who has had heart surgery and was treated for prostate cancer, has been on the throne in Japan since the death of his father, Hirohito, in 1989.

In his 10-minute pre-recorded message, Akihito said he had “started to reflect” on his years as emperor, and contemplate his position in the years to come: “While, being in the position of the emperor, I must refrain from making any specific comments on the existing imperial system, I would like to tell you what I, as an individual, have been thinking about.

Ever since my accession to the throne, I have carried out the acts of the emperor in matters of state, and at the same time I have spent my days searching for and contemplating on what is the desirable role of the emperor, who is designated to be the symbol of the state by the constitution of Japan. As one who has inherited a long tradition, I have always felt a deep sense of responsibility to protect this tradition.

At the same time, in a nation and in a world which are constantly changing, I have continued to think to this day about how the Japanese imperial family can put its traditions to good use in the present age and be an active and inherent part of society, responding to the expectations of the people.”

If Emperor Akihito were to abdicate, it would be the first time a Japanese emperor has stepped down since Emperor Kokaku in 1817.

Japan’s right wing nationalists who support Shinzo Abe’s government do not want any change to the current law, which insists emperors must serve until they die.

Emperor Akihito said he hoped the duties of the emperor as a symbol of the state could continue steadily without any breaks.

He said one possibility when an emperor could not fulfill his duties because of age or illness was that a regency could be established.

However, the emperor suggested this was not the ideal outcome, saying: “I think it is not possible to continue reducing perpetually the emperor’s acts in matters of state and his duties as the symbol of the state.”

Emperor Akihito’s eldest son, 56-year-old Crown Prince Naruhito is first in line to the Chrysanthemum throne, followed by his younger brother Prince Akishino.

Women are not allowed to inherit the throne and so Princess Aiko, the daughter of Crown Prince Naruhito, cannot succeed her father.

Abdication is not mentioned under Japan’s existing laws, so they would need to be changed for the emperor to be able to stand down. The changes will also have to be approved by parliament.

The emperor is constitutionally not allowed to make any political statements, and the desire to abdicate could be seen as being political.

The public seems to support Akihito’s desire to abdicate, with the younger generation in particular saying he should be allowed to relax in his old age.

A recent survey by the Kyodo news agency found more than 85% saying abdication should be legalized.

The move is opposed by some more conservative sections of society.

A debate about whether or not a woman would be able to ascend the throne was discussed in 2006 when the emperor had no grandsons, but was postponed after a boy was born to a family.

Prince Akishino also called for a debate on whether a retirement age should be set for the Emperor in 2011, but it did not result in a law change.

Under Japan’s constitution, the emperor’s role is defined as “symbol of the state”. He has no political powers and has several official duties, such as greeting foreign dignitaries, holding receptions and handing out awards.

Japan’s monarchy is entwined in the Shinto religion and the emperor still performs religious ceremonies.