The Japanese Emperor Abdicates

Emperor Akihito walks during a ritual called Taiirei Tojitsu Kashikodokoro Omae no Gi, a ceremony for the emperor to report the abdication ceremony to the goddess Amaterasu, at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo, Japan, on April 30, 2019.

By Dr. Jennifer Liu

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.

Akihito, joined by Empress Michiko and members of the royal family, speaks during his abdication ceremony on April 30.

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.

Naruhito delivers his first speech after his ascension to the throne on May 1.


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.

Parliamentary history in the Pyrenees

71st ICHRPI conference, Andorra, July 2019

By Martin O’Donoghue

2019 marks the 600th anniversary of the convocation of the Consell de la Terra, the first parliamentary assembly in Andorra – a picturesque country of 78,000 inhabitants nestled in the Pyrenees mountain range straddling Spain and France. A co-principality which boasts both the Bishop of Urgell and the President of France as its two princes, it has a rich parliamentary history with the Consell de la Terra first given privilege in 1419.

It was thus fitting that the International Commission for the History of Representative Parliaments and Institutions came to this idyllic location for its 71st conference. Founded in 1936, the Commission is dedicated to the dissemination and publication of research on the history of representative and parliamentary institutions. As a global scholarly body, its conferences feature papers delivered in English, French, and German or in the language of the country where the conference is held.

This year’s conference was hosted by the Consell General, Andorra’s parliament, and discussions reflected key themes including the evolution of representative assemblies to democratic parliaments, parliaments of small states/microstates, forms of representation, and the internal organization of representative assemblies. Over three days, the conference featured papers from eighteen countries in Europe, Asia, and North America with a special reception hosted by the parliament and a cultural tour of sites of historical and architectural interest. Happily, in an academic environment of often ever-increasing fees, the conference was free to attend, and the schedule was excellently organised with the reception offered by the parliament allowing delegates the chance to visit the old parliament building and meet some current Andorran politicians.

The Commission’s events are a great opportunity to highlight the opportunities offered by international conferences where particular themes and phenomena explored in a local or national context can be compared and interpreted in the context of emerging research on parliaments and assemblies. The Andorran setting provided an ideal environment for discussion of micro-states and smaller states and the evolution of their legislatures. The numerous anniversaries marked in 2019 (not least those of states emerging after the First World War) provided intriguing departure points for detailed analyses of a range of case studies. Other noteworthy themes emerged from discussions such as the influence of certain constitutional or parliamentary models on neighbouring states and the comparison of the behaviour of chambers, clerks, and parliamentarians in different geographical and temporal contexts.

Both the content of papers themselves and the opportunities to meet and discuss research with a diverse range of scholars helps to reflect not only the importance of themes in parliamentary history like localism and the use of parliamentary questions but also more practical issues such as how funding proposals and projects based around studies of parliamentary history can be constructed. From my perspective, it was an opportunity to reflect on the centenary of the Dáil – the lower house of the Irish parliament which first met a century ago this year. My paper dwelt on the role of Dáil representatives who had previously served as Irish nationalist MPs at the London parliament in Westminster. The post-war election in December 1918 saw a changing of the political guard in Ireland as Sinn Féin defeated the Irish Parliamentary Party, meaning that those who served in both the British parliament pre-1918 and the native parliament afterwards were rare, but were often distinctive parliamentarians and served as reminders of the older political tradition in the new state. This paper drew on my forthcoming book, The Legacy of the Irish Parliamentary Party in Independent Ireland, 1922-1949 and it was a pleasure to present this work on a panel with fascinating papers on the use of parliamentary motions in the early years of Finnish independence and the construction of the post-war Italian constitution.

The generous timetabling of the session also allowed ample time for enjoying the wonderful town of Andorra la Vella and the breath-taking scenery of the surrounding areas. In addition to meeting members of parliament and enjoying the Consell General’s hospitality, other delegates even managed to fit in work at the state’s national archives! The Commission offers generous scholarships for early career scholars to attend its conferences though its Helen Maud Cam bursary each year. As can be seen from the ICHRPI’s website, conferences are hosted by impressive institutions in beautiful locations and as a member of the International Committee of Historical Sciences (CIHS), the Commission’s next congress will meet in Poznan, Poland in 2020.


Martin O’Donoghue is a lecturer in Irish and British History at Northumbria University and a member of the ICHRPI. His upcoming book is The Legacy of the Irish Parliamentary Party in Independent Ireland, 1922-1949 and will be published by Liverpool University Press later this year. For more information or to contact him see his contact details at Northumbria or on twitter: @ODonoghueMartin

IPPCover.PNG