Japan’s popular Emperor Akihito formally abdicated on Tuesday in a short ceremony at the Imperial Palace, giving way to his son after the weight of official duties became too much for the 85-year-old.
Dressed in a morning coat with his wife, Empress Michiko, just behind him, Akihito gave a short televised speech in the Imperial Palace’s Pine Chamber or throne room, encapsulating the humble and peaceful values that marked his rule.
“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 fortunate to have been able to do so,” he said.
At the start of the ceremony, Akihito had walked into the room slowly with his wife, before the pair stood together in front of two thrones on a raised platform.
Their steps ringing out on the polished wooden floor, imperial chamberlains then carried in two of Japan’s three sacred treasures, a sword representing valor and a jewel representing benevolence, as well as the Privy Seal and the Great Seal of Japan – the seals of the emperor and state, respectively.
Enclosed in cases and only ever seen by the emperor and high priests, the sacred treasures were held up to the emperor before being carefully placed on stands made of Japanese cypress. A third treasure, a mirror – representing wisdom – is kept at Ise Grand Shrine, the holiest Shinto site in Japan.
Akihito is a much-loved figure in Japan. With his wife at his side, he humanized the role of the emperor, once viewed here as a living god, by reaching out to vulnerable members of society and victims of natural disasters, and actually looking ordinary people in the eye when talking to them.
But he also encouraged Japan to acknowledge its wartime past, and never pandered to the conservative nationalists who revere the tradition embodied in his role, experts say.
Speaking on behalf of the nation, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe expressed his “deep reverence and gratitude” to the Emperor and the way he had shared the “joys and sorrows” of the people.
“While keeping in our mind the way Your Majesty has lived, we the people of Japan are determined to work for the creation of a bright future for Japan as a peaceful country full of hope and pride,” he said.
Akihito is the first Japanese emperor to abdicate since the Emperor Koukaku gave way, also to his son, in 1817. His 30-year reign as ceremonial head of state comes to an end at midnight, concluding what is known as the Heisei era.
Crown Prince Naruhito, 59, will accede to the Chrysanthemum Throne in another ceremony at the palace Wednesday morning. His reign will mark the beginning of the Reiwa era, a term taken from ancient Japanese poetry and translated as “beautiful harmony.”
“I sincerely wish together with the empress that the Reiwa era, which begins tomorrow, will be a stable and fruitful one,” Akihito said, “and I pray with all my heart for peace and happiness for all the people in Japan and around the world.”
Akihito’s father, Hirohito, now referred to as Emperor Showa, ruled Japan during a period of frenzied nationalism and militarism that ended in its defeat in World War II.
Under the U.S.-imposed constitution that followed, the emperor was confined to ceremonial duties, and was forced to renounce his divine status as a descendant of the sun goddess Amaterasu.
Akihito has put those principles into practice enthusiastically. Throughout his reign he and his wife, Michiko, have visited elementary schools, as well as homes for the elderly and the disabled.
Takeshi Hara, the author of many books on Japan’s imperial history, said in Emperor Showa’s era, the emphasis had been on enhancing the authority of the emperor, with the monarch addressing tens of thousands of people from elevated positions.
“Emperor Akihito changed that style radically,” he said. “He came to speak to people at the same eye level, as was seen in his visits across Japan. It’s a significantly large difference, and a style fitting to Japan’s postwar democracy.”
Akihito is fondly remembered for a moving national address five days after an earthquake and tsunami hit eastern Japan in March 2011, killing nearly 20,000 people. He called on the nation to share the hardships of the suffering, and subsequently visited the region for seven consecutive weeks with Empress Michiko at the height of winter.
A survey conducted for the Asahi Shimbun newspaper this month found that 76 percent of Japanese people felt affinity to the royal family, while just 17 percent did not.
But Akihito personable style did not please Japan’s ultraconservatives, who felt he undermined imperial authority, for example by kneeling down to chat to evacuees after a volcano erupted in Nagasaki in 1991.
In recent years, Akihito has also attended memorial ceremonies for several of Japan’s World War II battles, including Iwo Jima, Okinawa, Saipan and Palau, to remember the tragic history of the war.
Ken Ruoff, director of Center for Japanese Studies at Portland State University, said Akihito periodically reminded his countrymen that Japan had caused great suffering, especially in neighboring countries.
“He’s the chief nationalistic symbol in Japan. And yet Akihito wanted nothing to do with chest-thumping ‘Japan first’ nationalism,” he said. “He would never lend his prestige to even the slightest hint of that.”
His desire to seek reconciliation with Japan’s neighbors made him an “awkward figure” for conservatives, and ironically something of a champion for Japanese liberals who might otherwise not have seen an emperor as compatible with secular democracy, said Jeff Kingston, a professor at Temple University in Tokyo.
Rituals marking the abdication began March 12 when the emperor informed his ancestors of his desire to abdicate at a palace shrine to Amaterasu: Tuesday’s ceremony was the ninth and final event, and the only one to be televised live. A formal and more elaborate enthronement ceremony for Naruhito will take place Oct. 22, and will be attended by royalty and dignitaries from around the world.
(c) 2019, The Washington Post · Simon Denyer