On the last day of his 30-year reign, Emperor Akihito on Tuesday said he “sincerely thanks” the Japanese people for their support of him as the symbol of the state, paving the way for the nation’s first abdication in around 200 years and Crown Prince Naruhito’s accession to the Chrysanthemum Throne at midnight.
“Today, I am concluding my duties as the emperor,” he told a nationally televised ceremony marking his abdication.
“Since ascending the throne 30 years ago, I have performed my duties as the emperor with a deep sense of trust in and respect for the people, and I consider myself most fortunate to have been able to do so.
“I sincerely thank the people who accepted and supported me in my role as the symbol of the state,” he said, before closing his final remark as the emperor with a prayer for peace in times ahead.
“I pray, with all my heart, for peace and happiness for all the people in Japan and around the world.”
The outgoing emperor’s remark followed Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s statement announcing his abdication. Abe lauded the emperor for how he always “shared the joys and sorrows” of the people and gave them “courage and hope” by staying close to them in difficult times of natural disasters.
“Keeping in mind steps made by His Majesty, we will further strive to do our best to carve out Japan’s bright future full of peace and hope that we can be proud of,” Abe said.
The abdication by a living Japanese monarch was the first since 1817. Following Tuesday’s exit, Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko will now be officially referred to as the “emperor emeritus” and “empress emerita,” respectively.
The abdication in turn put an end to the 30-year run of the Heisei (Achieving Peace) imperial era, which began on Jan. 8, 1989, and ended as the clock hit midnight and entered the Reiwa (Beautiful Harmony) Era, opening a new chapter in its history under the reign of the new emperor.
The process for the abdication was set in motion in 2016, when Emperor Akihito hinted at his desire to bow out early in a nationally televised video message, citing concerns that his advanced age is interfering with his ability to fulfill his role as a symbol of the nation.
The abdication distinguished Emperor Akihito from his immediate predecessors, who all reigned until their deaths — a break with tradition that allowed for the previously unthinkable: a jovial transition from one imperial era to another.
Unlike 30 years ago when the Heisei Era began, the dawn of Reiwa was marked by festivities somewhat reminiscent of a year-end celebration, with events held nationwide to count down the minutes to the arrival of the new imperial era.
Such merriness stood in stark contrast with the atmosphere of solemnity that prevailed when the Heisei Era commenced following the death of Emperor Hirohito, who is posthumously known as Emperor Showa.
With the imperial succession, all eyes are now on what the new monarch, Emperor Naruhito, has to say in his first address to the nation Wednesday.
Upon taking the throne 30 years ago, his father pledged to “abide by the Constitution together with the people of Japan and fulfill my duties in accordance with it,” setting forth his vision for a more approachable emperor than his father, who was revered as a deity before and during the war.
The question of how he should conduct himself to best personalize his identity as a symbol of the state — as is defined by the Constitution — has occupied his mind for the entirety of his reign, Emperor Akihito told a ceremony commemorating the 30th anniversary of his enthronement in February.
The extent to which his son is willing to spell out how he will seek to embody the idea of a symbolic emperor in an address on Wednesday remains to be seen.
Emperor Naruhito has, however, has repeatedly expressed his wish to emulate his parents in his past speeches, citing the way they always remained “close to the people in their thoughts,” as well as their frequent trips to areas ravaged by natural disasters to commiserate with survivors there.
Tuesday’s ceremony to mark the abdication was televised live nationwide, taking place in the Imperial Palace’s most prestigious chamber, known as the Pine Chamber — the “only hall in the Imperial Palace that has a wooden floor,” according to the Imperial Household Agency.
The ceremony involved two of the three sacred emblems of Japan’s imperial family — a sword and a jewel — being placed on a table by chamberlains, who also brought state and privy seals into the room.
Throughout the 10-minute ritual, Emperor Akihito went nowhere near touching any of the regalia — let alone handing them down to his son — reportedly to avoid the impression that he was actively declaring his intention to abdicate, a taboo gesture that could be interpreted as running counter to the Constitution, which strips the Emperor of any political power.
The rite was attended by about 300 participants, including imperial family members and heads of the legislature, the government and the judiciary, as well as state ministers and representatives from local municipalities.
In a ceremony to be held Wednesday morning, the new emperor will inherit the regalia — as well as the state and privy seals — as proof of his accession to the throne.
While it will be attended by male adults from the imperial family, the event will be off-limits to its female members, including the new empress, taking a page from the last inheritance ritual in 1989 when female members were similarly barred from attending. The existing law stipulates only males can accede to the throne.
The government, however, has decided to allow members of the Cabinet to attend the rite as observers regardless of sex, paving the way for its only female minister, Satsuki Katayama, to do so. After the inheritance is over, the new emperor is set to give his first public address.
The imperial succession will set in motion what is to become a yearlong celebration punctuated by a host of rituals at the palace, culminating in an enthronement ceremony on Oct. 22 and a great thanksgiving ceremony from Nov. 14 to 15.
At the latter event, the emperor “offers newly-harvested rice to the Imperial Ancestor and to the deities of heaven and earth,” giving “thanks and praying for peace and abundant harvests for the country and the people,” according to the Imperial Household Agency.
Full text of Emperor Akihito’s speech from the abdication ceremony
Today, I am concluding my duties as the Emperor.
I would like to offer my deep gratitude to the words just spoken by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on behalf of the people of Japan.
Since ascending the throne 30 years ago, I have performed my duties as the Emperor with a deep sense of trust in and respect for the people, and I consider myself most fortunate to have been able to do so. I sincerely thank the people who accepted and supported me in my role as the symbol of the State.
I sincerely wish, together with the Empress, that the Reiwa era, which begins tomorrow, will be a stable and fruitful one, and I pray, with all my heart, for peace and happiness for all the people in Japan and around the world.