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For the First Time in 200 Years, Japan’s Emperor Has Abdicated the Throne

Emperor Akihito has voluntarily passed the title on to his son, Crown Prince Naruhito

In this handout image provided by Imperial Household Agency, Japanese Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko attend the abdication ceremony at the Imperial Palace on April 30, 2019 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Handout/Imperial Household Agency of Japan via Getty Images)
smithsonian.com

Thirty years after he ascended to Japan’s Chrysanthemum Throne, Emperor Akihito stepped down from his position Tuesday during a simple ceremony at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo. The event marked the first abdication of a Japanese emperor in more than two centuries.

“Today, I am concluding my duties as the emperor,” Akihito said during the ceremony, which was broadcast on national television, reports Tomohiro Osaki of the Japan Times. At the conclusion of his speech, the 85-year-old emperor wished “for peace and happiness for all the people in Japan and around the world.”

As Akihito and his family watched on, a sword and a jewel—two sacred emblems of the imperial family—were placed on a table, along with state and privy seals (the third emblem, a sacred mirror, does not leave its space in the palace) . In a ceremony to take place on Wednesday morning, Akihito’s son, Naruhito, will inherit the regalia, a sign of his assumption of the throne.

In 2016, Akihito began intimating that he would like to retire, citing his age and declining health. The next year, according to Motoko Rich of the New York Times, Japan’s parliament passed a special act, applying only to Akihito and not to future emperors, that allowed him to step down. A Japanese monarch had not abdicated since Emperor Kokaku, who transferred his title to his son in 1817, reports Reuters’ Linda Sieg.

When Akihito ascended to the throne in 1989, after the death of his father Hirohito, he faced the daunting task of softening the perception of a monarchy in both Japan and beyond. Hirohito reigned during World War II, and though he “later portrayed himself as a virtually powerless constitutional monarch, many scholars have come to believe he played an active role in the war effort,” writes History. In 1945, 70 percent of Americans favored the emperor’s “prosecution for war crimes, execution, imprisonment or exile,” as the Washington Post’s Yoichi Funabashi points out.

Japan’s post-war constitution reduced the emperor to a purely symbolic role, and when Akihito’s turn came to assume the exalted title, he focused his efforts on conveying a message of reconciliation and humanity. He and his wife, the former career diplomat Empress Michiko, traveled across Japan, making sure to reach out to citizens who had been hard-hit by natural disasters—like the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that killed nearly 16,000 people in the northern part of the country.

According to the Times’ Rich, Akihito also travelled to Asian countries that had been attacked or occupied by Japan during WWII. Though he avoided making outright apologies, the emperor expressed careful regrets over his nation’s role in the conflict, the Associated Press’ Mari Yamaguchi reports.

The era of Akihito’s reign is known as Heisei, or “achieving peace.” With Crown Prince Naruhito’s accession at midnight tonight, the era of Reiwa, or “pursuing harmony” will begin. According to Osaki of the Japan Times, Naruhito has expressed his intention of emulating his parents’ compassion and accessibility, saying that they always stayed “close to the people in their thoughts.”

About Brigit Katz

Brigit Katz is a freelance writer based in Toronto. Her work has appeared in a number of publications, including NYmag.com, Flavorwire and Tina Brown Media's Women in the World.

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