Written by Motoko Rich
Three decades after he ascended the Chrysanthemum Throne, Emperor Akihito on Tuesday became Japan’s first monarch in more than two centuries to abdicate, passing the symbolic but influential role to his eldest son in a brief, unadorned ceremony at the Imperial Palace.
The new emperor, Naruhito, who Wednesday received the sacred imperial regalia that represents his rightful succession to the world’s oldest monarchy, takes the place of an enormously popular monarch.
While the role is chiefly ceremonial, the departing emperor acted as the nation’s chief consoler during times of disaster, such as the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, and sought to make amends throughout Asia for Japan’s wartime atrocities.
Conservatives balked at Akihito’s embrace of atonement, but his son is likely to continue his emphasis on pacifism and war remembrance as well as his father’s efforts to bring the monarchy much closer to the people.
Naruhito, 59, takes the throne at a time when Japan faces numerous challenges, including a low birth rate and a declining, aging population. The country is making efforts to open the country to foreign workers, change the country’s brutal, entrenched work culture and reduce gender inequality.
Under the country’s postwar constitution, the emperor — once regarded as a demigod — has no political power to address any of these issues directly, but he can set a tone. Analysts are already scrutinizing Naruhito’s public statements for hints of what his reign might look like.
Educated at Oxford University in Britain, Naruhito, along with his wife, Masako, a former diplomat with a degree from Harvard, represents a cosmopolitan outlook in Japan.
In his limited public statements, Naruhito has indicated he believes the monarchy should adjust to modernity.
“I believe that just as new winds blow in every age, the role of the imperial family changes in each age as well,” he said at a news conference on his birthday in 2017, shortly after Akihito, 85, indicated he wished to retire. “I would like to learn various things from the past and firmly carry forward traditions that have been passed down since ancient times, while also pursuing the ideal role that the imperial family should take in the future.”
The royal family itself faces a looming existential crisis. After Naruhito, there are only three men left in the line of succession, including his 83-year-old uncle, his 53-year-old brother and his 12-year-old nephew.
Women are not allowed to ascend to the throne, and women born into the royal family must renounce their imperial titles and officially leave the family once they marry. None of their children can be in line to the throne.
At a news conference marking his birthday this year, Naruhito acknowledged that “the declining ratio of male imperial members” and “the fact that female imperial members have to leave the imperial house” could affect the future of the royal family.
Analysts suggested that Naruhito was hinting that the rules governing the imperial household should change. “You have to try to read into what they’re saying,” said Jeff Kingston, director of Asian studies at Temple University in Tokyo. “I think he was subtly suggesting that he, too, supports women’s succession.”
The new emperor has been fiercely protective of his wife, who gave up a promising career in the diplomatic corps when she married him and suffered bouts of depression because of the enormous pressure to produce a male heir. She has kept a curtailed schedule of public appearances for years.
“Although it is certainly the case that Masako’s condition is improving steadily, she remains subject to ups and downs,” Naruhito said in 2017. “And it is my hope that at a measured pace, she will prudently and gradually continue to broaden the scope of her activities.”
The Japanese public has been largely sympathetic to Masako, and has praised Naruhito for his devotion to her along with their daughter, Aiko, 17.
“He cares about his family so much,” said Hiroyo Abe, 48, who works at a satellite broadcasting company and was attending a theater performance in Tokyo on Tuesday afternoon. “He must be a good person.”
Naruhito’s father secured his reputation as an admired person in his extensive travels across Japan. Akihito and Empress Michiko were a consoling presence particularly after disasters. They visited the Kobe region after the 1995 earthquake that killed close to 6,500 people, kneeling before survivors in a break with tradition.
After the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that killed almost 16,000 people in northern Japan and caused a nuclear disaster, the emperor gave an unprecedented nationally televised address, asking people to act with compassion “to overcome these difficult times.”
“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,” Akihito said Tuesday in a short address inside a state room at the palace, in central Tokyo.
In a farewell address to the departing emperor, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe noted that Japan had faced numerous challenges during Akihito’s reign.
“In such cases, his majesty the emperor, together with her majesty the empress, have stood close to the people, and encouraged the victims of disasters,” he said. “He gave people courage and hope for the future.”
As the successor to wartime emperor Hirohito, Akihito also took on the mantle of atoning for Japan’s wartime sins. He traveled widely throughout Asia to countries that had been attacked or conquered by Japan during World War II, and spread a message of pacifism.
When Akihito took over the throne in 1989, it was after his father had suffered a prolonged illness. Akihito, who was treated for prostate cancer in 2003 and underwent heart surgery in 2012, may have wished to avoid subjecting his son to a period of such limbo.
But the decision to abdicate was not the emperor’s alone to make, and he ultimately had to wait three years after first expressing his desire to step down. The abdication required a special act of Parliament, passed in 2017. The law applies only to him and not to future emperors.
During the ceremony Tuesday, which lasted just over 10 minutes, the emperor and empress stood solemnly on a stage in a state room with wood flooring that evoked a high school gymnasium.
A crowd of nearly 300 politicians, Supreme Court judges and their spouses watched the proceedings, in which palace chamberlains placed an imperial sword, jewels and seals, all wrapped in silk cloth, on cypress benches flanking the stage.
Akihito wore a topcoat and tails with a silver tie, and Michiko wore a floor-length silver-white gown with white gloves.
In his brief address, with Crown Prince Naruhito and his wife, Masako, standing to the side just off the stage, the departing emperor said he had prayed that the new era would be “peaceful and fruitful.”
At the end of the ceremony, Akihito, now emperor emeritus, stepped down from the stage, turned and waited. He wanted to give his wife a hand down the steps.
Outside the palace, a crowd of about 1,000 people gathered to commemorate the abdication.
Mieko Tomiyama, 65, a nurse visiting from Tochigi, north of Tokyo, to see the musical “Les Miserables,” wore a purple kimono as she stopped by the palace.
“The emperor and Michiko and other royals seem to be people who are from another world,” Tomiyama said. “But they tried to be close to commoners.” She added that she hoped the new emperor and empress would “remain as symbols of peace.”
With Akihito’s abdication, he becomes known as the Heisei emperor, after the name given to the era in which he reigned. Imperial custom dictates that the reign of each emperor is accompanied by a name for his term in power. The new era, known as Reiwa, begins Wednesday.
Anticipating Naruhito’s ascension, some visitors to the palace grounds Tuesday said they hoped that his wife, Masako, could help nudge Japan closer to gender equality.
“I hope she will be active in international relations as the empress,” said Misa Minoura, 23, an office worker. “I hope the society will be better so that women can participate more.”