Japan’s Emperor Akihito will step down from the Chrysanthemum Throne on Tuesday, the first abdication in the world’s oldest imperial family for two centuries, ending 30 years of his popular reign and ushering in a new era.
Celebrations are planned across the country as the famously hard-working Japanese enjoy an unprecedented 10-day holiday with a series of special days off combining with the traditional “Golden Week” in May.
Akihito’s eldest son, 59-year-old Crown Prince Naruhito, will take the throne the following day in a series of solemn ceremonies, receiving the imperial regalia — an ancient mirror, sword and jewel — considered crucial evidence of an emperor’s legitimacy.
The abdication brings down the curtain on the current “Heisei” era, which started in January 1989 at the height of Japan’s economic boom, and kicks off a new imperial era called “Reiwa” meaning “beautiful harmony”.
The popular Akihito, 85, stunned the nation in 2016 when he signalled his desire to take a back seat, citing his age and health problems — he has been treated for prostate cancer and has also undergone heart surgery.
There have been abdications in Japan’s long imperial history, which has mythological origins and stretches back more than two millennia, but the last one was more than 200 years ago.
The status of the emperor is sensitive in Japan given its 20th century history of war waged in the name of Akihito’s father Hirohito.
Akihito was born in 1933 just as Japan was embarking on its militaristic sweep across Asia, and was 11 when the war ended in defeat. He listened in tears on August 15, 1945 as Hirohito made a radio address — the first ever by an emperor — to announce the shock loss.
His father was allowed to remain on the throne after Japan’s defeat and US occupation, but his status was downgraded from semi-divine sovereign to a figurehead with no political power.
For his part, Akihito has embraced the role and tried to use it to help heal the scars of the war while modernising the ancient monarchy for a democratic age with a warmer, popular touch.
He and Empress Michiko won widespread plaudits with their reaction to
Japan’s devastating 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown,
visiting victims in the radioactive Fukushima province just two months
after the disaster.
The emperor is barred from commenting on politics, but Akihito has over the years hinted at his own anti-nationalist views.
He has irritated Japanese right-wingers by acknowledging that his country inflicted “great suffering” in China, and expressing regret over Japan’s brutal rule of the Korean peninsula.
There is no republican movement to speak of in Japan and the emperor and the royal family enjoy the admiration of the vast majority of the country.
But the abdication has reignited concerns about a potential succession crisis.
There are no more eligible male heirs after the 12-year-old son of Crown Prince Naruhito’s younger brother Akishino.
Japan’s centuries-old succession would be broken if that son, Hisahito, does not have a male child.
The idea of letting women ascend the throne is popular with ordinary Japanese, but it is vehemently opposed by traditionalists.
Female royals lose their royal status upon marriage to a commoner, a rule that would apply to Naruhito’s only child, Princess Aiko, now age 17.
Incoming emperor Naruhito faces the delicate task of balancing tradition within the monarchy and his own modern values, including protecting his family from the palace’s rigid rules.
The 59-year-old heir once criticised the sometimes stifling lifestyle imposed on royals, particularly as his wife Masako has struggled to adapt to imperial life and has long struggled with stress-induced illness.
The dawn of a new era has left many Japanese reflecting on the changes since 1989, when the country was a global economic powerhouse dominating the world of technology.
Now the country is suffering from sluggish economic growth, an ageing popular and labour shortage and has seen China and South Korea rise up to challenge its economic dominance and reputation for technological innovation.
But the new era has refired Japan’s entrepreneurial spirit with firms selling everything from commemorative bottles of sake to a Wagyu-beef “emperor burger” worth $900.
One canny firm is even selling tins containing “the air of Heisei” — yours at a snip for $10.