With the 30-year Heisei Era nearing its end as then-Emperor Akihito prepared to abdicate at midnight Tuesday, members of the public recalled the past three decades and expressed their hopes for the new era starting the next day.
Crowds visited the Imperial Palace as rain fell on Tokyo and across many parts of Japan. The 85-year-old emperor gave a final farewell to the public in a ceremony within the palace at 5 p.m. before his elder son, then-Crown Prince Naruhito, 59, was to accede to the throne on Wednesday.
“I wanted to see the Imperial Palace on the last day of Heisei,” said Kiwako Toma, 44, visiting the palace from Okinawa Prefecture with her 9-year-old son.
Okinawa was one of the bloodiest battlefields of World War II, a war Japan fought in the name of Emperor Emeritus Akihito’s father, Emperor Hirohito, posthumously known as Emperor Showa.
“I came here with gratitude, as I was touched by His Majesty’s attitude to not forgetting Okinawa and keeping on caring about local people,” Toma said. The emperor emeritus visited the prefecture a total of 11 times, including trips made when he was a crown prince.
Umbrellas in hand, visitors took commemorative photos with cameras and smartphones in front of the Nijubashi bridge within the palace grounds.
Miho Einaga, 53, from Hyogo Prefecture, said she was affected by the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake that hit Kobe and surrounding areas, and lost relatives in the massive earthquake and tsunami that devastated northeastern Japan in 2011.
“There were a series of natural disasters but I feel that the emperor has always cared for us,” she said.
Gu Jie, 31, who was guiding a group of tourists from Shanghai, said, “I hope in the next era, China and Japan will become closer friends.”
“(Heisei) is really coming to an end,” said Akio Fumibuchi, 71, in Osaka Prefecture as he looked back over the era. He was another impacted by a natural disaster, describing how the roof of his house had been blown away in a powerful typhoon last year.
“I hope there’ll be no big disasters (in the coming era). And we shouldn’t wage war,” he added, wishing for the peaceful times to continue.
In Sendai, Yuka Hoshi, 32, recalled seeing the emperor emeritus and empress emerita visit areas devastated by the 2011 earthquake. “My husband’s grandmother was nearly in tears,” she said. “I was moved too.”
In Sapporo, Yoshie Goto, 51, described the Heisei Era as “tumultuous,” as her employer Yamaichi Securities Co. went out of business in 1997. “I want my (23-year-old) son to have the strength to survive the hard times” that might come his way one day, she said.
“The imperial couple were a symbol of 30 years of peace,” said Hiroshi Hisama, 56, in Fukuoka Prefecture. He expressed the wish that Emperor Naruhito becomes an emperor beloved of the people.
In Nagoya, a 25-year-old company worker who identifies as a member of a sexual minority, looked back on the Heisei Era as one in which “people became tolerant of diversity.”
In Tokyo’s bustling shopping and entertainment hub Shibuya, police are on the alert for possible rowdy behavior as the area’s famous scramble crossing may become a meeting point for young people to celebrate the start of the new era at midnight.
Groups opposed to the nation’s imperial system also took to the streets.
A group of around 150 people gathered near Tokyo’s JR Shinjuku Station and called for abolishing the system, arguing that having an emperor goes against the legal equality guaranteed under the Constitution.
Some right-wing activists tried to interrupt the rally, with riot police mobilized to block them from approaching the demonstrators.