Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Cabinet on Friday formally approved April 30, 2019, as the abdication date for Emperor Akihito, which will end the current Heisei era in its 31st year.
The Emperor’s elder son, Crown Prince Naruhito, 57, will accede to the Chrysanthemum Throne the next day, May 1, in what will be the country’s first accession by a living Emperor since 1817.
The final approval by the Cabinet was made a week after the abdication date was agreed upon by a meeting of the Imperial House Council, which was chaired by Abe and involved Diet leaders, the judiciary and Imperial family members.
Emperor Akihito, who has had heart surgery and undergone treatment for prostate cancer, signaled his wish to step down in a rare video message aired in August 2016, citing his advanced age and weakening health. He will be 85 when he abdicates.
Despite his age, the Emperor, along with the Empress, has conducted numerous visits to disaster-hit areas, including the Tohoku region, which was devastated by the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami, and Kumamoto Prefecture, which was rocked by several quakes in April 2016.
Masafumi Sakanashi, the 58-year-old principal of a Kumamoto school that served as an evacuation center and was visited by the Emperor after the quakes, praised him for the trips.
“I felt he was very considerate because he was talking to each person,” Sakanashi said.
“I hope he will stay healthy even after his retirement,” he added.
Masakatsu Takara, the 77-year-old chief of Okinawa Prefecture’s Tsushima Maru Memorial Museum, echoed this sentiment.
“I think he must have felt a huge responsibility as Japan’s symbol,” Takara said. “I hope he will take it easy for the rest of his life.”
Takara escorted the Emperor and Empress during their June 2014 visit to the museum, which commemorates about 1,500 people, including hundreds of schoolchildren, who were killed during the 1944 sinking of a Japanese ship by a U.S. submarine torpedo during the war.
The government is considering holding the Enthronement Ceremony (Sokui no Rei), in the fall of 2019 and will set up an organization early next year, headed by Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, to prepare for it.
The government is also expected to announce the name of the new era — or gengo — in mid-2018. In modern Japan, a gengo lasts for the length of an Emperor’s reign.
The government plans to allocate 10 consecutive holidays, which includes existing national holidays, around the Imperial accession date, sources have said.
The current Emperor’s Enthronement Ceremony was held on Nov. 12, 1990, following the January 1989 death of his father, Emperor Hirohito, who is posthumously known as Emperor Showa.
The Diet enacted a law in June to enable the Emperor to pass the throne to the Crown Prince. The special legislation was necessary as the Imperial House Law lacks a provision on abdication.
When deciding the abdication date, the Imperial House Council took into consideration that the Emperor’s reign will have been for 30 years by the time he steps down. It was also believed that at least one year will be required to prepare for related ceremonies as well as to secure the necessary budget and manpower, according to Friday’s released panel meeting minutes.
The government initially leaned toward setting the abdication date at the end of 2018 and launching the new era at the start of 2019.
But the proposal was opposed by the Imperial Household Agency as ceremonies to mark the Imperial succession would coincide with important year-end and New Year Imperial events.
An alternative option, March 31, 2019, was also deemed unfavorable as the timing would overlap with unified local elections held nationwide once every four years. As a result, Abe proposed April 30, 2019, as the sole option at the council meeting.
The council judged it would be better to avoid an early April date as it is the beginning of Japan’s fiscal and academic years, when school entrance ceremonies and personnel transfers take place, the minutes showed.
An Imperial Household Agency official voiced disagreement over the date, alleging that Abe had supported the April decision because it would allow him to tout his own accomplishments.
“The Prime Minister’s Office pointed to various drawbacks if the accession were to take place at the end of fiscal year, but it probably just wanted to make a show of political leadership,” the official said.
Under the postwar Constitution, the Emperor, once considered divine, is defined as “the symbol of the state and of the unity of the people,” but wields no political power.
While Emperor Akihito’s abdication date has now been set, there still remains the urgent challenge of how to ensure a stable line of accession as the Imperial family ages and shrinks in size.
Princess Mako, 26, the eldest granddaughter of the Emperor, is scheduled to leave the Imperial family next November after her marriage to a commoner. Her 11-year-old brother, Prince Hisahito, is the only male of his generation in the Imperial household. Under the Imperial House Law, only males can accede to the throne.