Rituals filled the day of the abdication of Japan’s Emperor Akihito on April 30, 2019. According to Japanese mythology, the 2,600-year imperial line begins with the Shinto sun goddess Amaterasu. At dawn, the 85-year-old Akihito told the goddess he would be abdicating. Later, at the abdication ceremony (which lasted just over 10 minutes), he symbolically ended his reign by returning the “three sacred treasures” (a sword, jewels, and seals) that symbolize the throne. A crowd of nearly 300 politicians, Supreme Court judges, and their spouses attended. The following morning, Naruhito – the new emperor and Akihito’s elder son – returned to the same room at the palace to receive the regalia. Akihito’s Heisei (“achieving peace”) reign ended and Naruhito became the 126th emperor, beginning the Reiwa (“beautiful harmony”) era. Japan’s annual spring holiday, the “Golden Week break,” was extended to ten days to mark the occasion.
The enormously popular Akihito is the first emperor to abdicate in 200 years. The last Japanese monarch to do so was Kokaku in 1817. In August 2016, Akihito, citing concerns about his age and declining health, expressed his wish to abdicate while he was still well and capable. Having been treated for prostate cancer in 2003 and undergoing heart surgery in 2012, he sought understanding in a message to his people and immediately won overwhelming public support and sympathy, paving the way for the government’s approval. With Japan’s Imperial House Law lacking a provision on abdication by a reigning emperor and virtually allowing only posthumous succession, the government enacted a one-time law to allow Akihito’s abdication in 2017.
Japan has the world’s oldest continuing hereditary monarchy. Legend dates it to about 660 BCE. Formerly the emperors were seen as living gods, but Hirohito – Akihito’s father – publicly renounced his divinity as part of Japan’s surrender at the end of World War II. Akihito became the first emperor who was a constitutionally defined symbol with no political power when he succeeded in 1989.
Nevertheless, Akihito was pivotal in helping repair Japan’s postwar reputation. He sought to make amends by traveling throughout Asia to apologize for his country’s wartime atrocities and acted as Japan’s chief consoler during times of disaster including the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that left approximately 20,000 people dead or missing. Akihito and his wife, Empress Michiko, visited survivors at shelters and were generally heralded by the public for their compassion in helping the battered nation recover.
The succession leaves only three heirs to the Chrysanthemum Throne: Akihito’s younger brother, Prince Hitachi; Naruhito’s younger brother, Akishino; and Prince Hisahito, Akishino’s only son. Japan’s current law forbids women from inheriting the throne. Should more female family members relinquish their royal status upon marriage to a commoner, as stipulated by law, it will be more difficult for the imperial family to carry out official activities. In retirement, Akihito no longer performs official duties. Known by the title joko (emperor emeritus), he and Michiko have moved into Togu Palace, a smaller royal residence in Tokyo.
Naruhito is taking the throne at a time when Japan faces numerous challenges, including plummeting birthrates and a declining, aging population. The country is making efforts to open itself to foreign workers, change Japan’s brutal, entrenched work culture, and reduce gender inequality. The emperor has no power to address any of these issues directly, but he can set an important tone. Analysts have been scrutinizing Naruhito’s previous public statements for hints of what his reign might look like. He has indicated that he believes the monarchy should adjust to modernity and is likely to continue emphasizing pacifism and war remembrance as well as continuing his father’s efforts to humanize the throne.
Dr. Jennifer Liu Demas is a Professor of History at Central Michigan University. Dr. Liu specializes in the political and social history of twentieth-century China, particularly education, youth culture, student protest, and ethnic identity. Her current project, Indoctrinating the Youth, examines the Nationalist (Guomindang) government’s attempts to inculcate political loyalty through youth groups, compulsory military training, and secondary school curriculum from 1930–1960. For more information and to contact her please visit her faculty page.