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Apr 30, 2019

Asia & Pacific | Japan’s popular emperor abdicates in short ceremony at Imperial Palace

By Simon Denyer




Simon Denyer
Tokyo bureau chief covering Japan, North Korea and South Korea.
TOKYO — Japan’s Emperor Akihito formally abdicated on Tuesday in a short ceremony at the Imperial Palace on Tuesday, 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 the Empress Michiko just behind him, Akihito walked in slowly to the throne room at the Imperial Palace. He was thanked by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for his service to the nation, before making a short speech that encapsulated the peaceful and humble outlook that marked his reign.
“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 in his last public address in the role.
“I sincerely wish together with the empress that the Reiwa era which begins tomorrow will be a stable and fruitful one, and I pray with all my heart for peace and happiness for all the people in Japan and around the world.”
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 literature and translated as “beautiful harmony.”

Japans Emperor Akihito delivers his speech as Empress Michiko, Crown Prince Naruhito and Crown Princess Masako attend the abdication ceremony at the Matsu-no-Ma state room in the Imperial Palace in Tokyo on April 30, 2019. (Str/AFP/Getty Images)
Akihito is a much-loved figure in Japan. With his wife, the Empress Michiko, 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.
The abdication was marked by a series of private events culminating in a short and simple televised ceremony in the Imperial Palace in front of the imperial family and 300 dignitaries. 
It took place in the palace’s prestigious Pine Chamber, the throne room where the emperor conducts audiences with the prime minister. 
Their steps ringing out on the polished wooden floor, imperial chamberlains carried in the Privy Seal and the Great Seal of Japan — the seals of the emperor and state, respectively — as well two of Japan’s three sacred treasures. These were presented to the emperor before being carefully placed on stands made of Japanese cypress.
The treasures, revered symbols of the throne, consist of a sword representing valor, and a jewel representing benevolence, while a mirror — representing wisdom — is kept at Ise Grand Shrine, the holiest Shinto site in Japan.
Enclosed in cases, the treasures, also known as the Imperial Regalia, are only ever seen by the emperor and senior priests in private ceremonies, with no known photographs or drawings in existence.
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’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 and the explosion of two atomic bombs in the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. 
Under the U.S.-imposed constitution that followed, the emperor was strictly 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.
“Showa style was the emperor is above and the people are below,” he said. “Emperor Akihito changed that style radically. 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.
“People felt moved that the emperor worries about us to this degree, and I think that had a strong calming effect on the mind of the people,” Hara said.
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 and Michiko’s 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 express condolences for those who suffered and remember the tragic history of the war.
In a 2001 news conference, he was asked about Japan’s relationship with its local rival Korea, a country that still remembers a brutal period of Japanese colonial rule in the last century. 
Akihito paid extensive tribute to the contributions Korea had made to Japanese culture, and expressed regret that Japan’s own exchanges with Korea had not always been so positive. “This is something that we should never forget,” he said.
Ken Ruoff, director of Center for Japanese Studies at Portland State University said Akihito periodically reminded his countrymen that Japan had caused great suffering in the past, 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.”
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 is 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.
Akiko Kashiwagi contributed to this report.
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