Akihito Abdicates the Throne as Japan Marks End of Era

April 30, 2019 Updated: April 30, 2019

TOKYO — Japanese head of state Akihito announced his abdication at a palace ceremony on April 30 in his final address, as the nation embraced the end of his reign with reminiscence and hope for a new era.

As he walked out of the room following his speech and officials were taking away the imperial regalia in a box, Akihito turned around, paused and bowed to the audience.

Japan ruler Akihito abdicates
Japan’s head of state Akihito bows before leaving after the abdication ceremony at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo, Tuesday, April 30, 2019. The 85-year-old Akihito ends his three-decade reign on Tuesday. (Japan Pool via The Associated Press)

Akihito’s reign will officially end at midnight, when his son Crown Prince Naruhito, who observed Akihito’s abdication ceremony, succeeds him as nation’s 126th head of state.

Naruhito’s wife Masako and daughter Aiko are barred from the ceremony because they are female members of the royal family, a palace tradition that the government upheld despite criticism that it is out of step with modern values.

The role of the Japanese head of state is largely symbolic in Japan’s postwar constitution, and most of Akihito’s duties are managed by a controlling Imperial Household Agency. But Akihito’s dedication in reaching out to the people, especially those suffering or less fortunate, earned him popularity among Japanese people.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in expressed gratitude in a letter to Akihito for his emphasis on peace and contributions to developing relations between Seoul and Tokyo. U.S. President Donald Trump expressed appreciheadation for his contribution to the two countries’ close relations. Trump had a courtesy meeting with Akihito during his 2017 Japan visit and will be the first foreign leader in May to meet the new head of state.

End of an Imperial Era

Despite the wet and cold weather, many people gathered outside the palace compound hours before the ceremony, even though they were not allowed to look inside. Thousands of police were mobilized around the palace and across downtown Tokyo.

“We came because today is the last day of Heisei (the reign of Akihito), and we feel nostalgic,” said Akemi Yamauchi, 55, standing outside the palace with her husband.

People japan before king abdicates
People raise their arms in the air toward Imperial Palace in Tokyo Tuesday, April 30, 2019. Japanese ruler Akihito is set to abdicate later in the day. (Shinji Kita/Kyodo News via The Associated Press)

Japanese television talk shows displayed a countdown to the midnight transition, and programming was dominated by the abdication and looking back at major events during Akihito’s three-decade reign, including a massive 2011 tsunami, a deadly earthquake in Kobe in 1995, and the Tokyo subway nerve gas attack in 1995 that shook Japan’s sense of safety and confidence.

Still, Japan was in festive mood over a change in an imperial era not caused by death. Many people visited shrines and temples to receive stamps dated on the last day of Akihito’s era of Heisei, or “achieving peace.” Some amusement parks and shops offered free admission and special deals, while customers had their last Heisei meals at restaurants. Naruhito’s era of Reiwa, or “beautiful harmony” begins Wednesday.

Akihito, 85, took the throne in 1989 and was the first Japanese ruler to marry a commoner.

Japanese ruler Akihito in a ritual during abdication
Japanese ruler Akihito leaves after a ritual to announce his abdication to the throne, at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo, Tuesday, April 30, 2019. (Japan Pool via The Associated Press)

Jeff Kingston, Asian studies director at Temple University’s Japan campus, says Akihito has served as Japan’s “chief emissary of reconciliation,” while acting as “consoler in chief” in reaching out to the people. Akihito was also a “strong advocate of the vulnerable and the marginalized in the Japanese society,” he said. “I think the people really warmed to him and felt that the monarchy was relevant to their lives because of these efforts by Akihito.”

Recent media surveys have shown public support for the imperial family at 80%, the highest ever for the institution.

Akihito will be known as the head of state emeritus and will no longer have official duties. He and his wife Michiko will move to a temporary royal residence before eventually switching places with Naruhito.

By Mari Yamaguchi