TOKYO: Japan’s Emperor Akihito on Tuesday kicked off ceremonies for his abdication. He will become the country’s first monarch to abdicate in 202 years, bringing an end to the 30-year Heisei Era under his reign.
Akihito, 85 had expressed a desire to abdicate in 2016, fearing his age would make it difficult for him to carry out public duties. At the Matsu no Ma (Hall of Pine) at the Imperial Palace on Tuesday evening, the emperor will relinquish his title in a ceremony. After the emperor’s last speech, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is expected to address the audience. The emperor’s elder son, Crown Prince Naruhito, 59, will accede to the throne on Wednesday. Akihito will formally step down at midnight and no longer engage in official duties.
Around 300 guests, including cabinet ministers, political leaders and Supreme Court judges as well as prefectural governors are expected to attend the ceremony.
In 1989, Emperor Akihito became the first monarch enthroned under the postwar constitution of Japan, the world’s oldest monarchy. The country’s constitution defined the emperor as a “symbol of the state” without any political power.
The crowds began to gather on early Tuesday outside the Imperial Palace in Tokyo even though the ceremony is not public. Akihito, donned in a golden-brown robe, performed a ritual to “report” his abdication to his ancestors and the Shinto gods. The gods also included the sun goddess Amaterasu Omikami, from whom, according to Japanese mythology, the 2,600-year imperial line is descended.
The main event will begin at 5:00pm local time (0800 GMT), when Akihito will formally step down in a 10-minute long ceremony. The ritual will be conducted in the presence of an ancient sword and jewell considered crucial evidence of an emperor’s legitimacy.
Citizens, who came from different parts of the country, expressed their gratitude for the out-going emperor and lauded his services.
The US President Donald Trump was among the first world leaders who sent congratulations and offered “heartfelt appreciation” to the Japanese emperor.
The 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown that devastated east Japan and killed thousands of people, Akihito and his wife Empress Michiko were seen comforting the victim families. The images of the couple kneeling and bowing to those in temporary shelters gave courage the grief-stricken nation and in a rare move, Akihito addressed the people on the television screen.
The abdication has also raised concerns about a potential succession crisis. There are no more male heirs after the 12-year-old son of Naruhito’s younger brother Akishino. Japan’s centuries-old succession tradition would be broken if that child, Hisahito, does not have a son.
Though the idea of letting women ascend the throne is popular among the people, it is vehemently opposed by traditionalists.