Last November, Japan’s Imperial Household Council approved Emperor Akihito’s request to step down as Japan’s emperor, making him the first emperor to abdicate in over 200 years. The 83-year old, citing concerns with age and health following treatments for prostate cancer in 2003 and a heart surgery in 2012, first alluded to his wishes to step down and appoint a new regent during a televised address in August 2016. Although Japanese law prevented him from abdicating, a decision by the Imperial Household Council’s 10-member body will allow Akihito to officially abdicate on April 30, 2019. The announcement of the decision came in December 2017 following the Council’s decision and an upper house of parliament bill that was approved in June 2017.
Emperor Akihito is the 125th emperor of the imperial line of succession of Japan. He succeeded to the throne upon the death of his father, Emperor Showa, in January 1989. His era was named Heisei, meaning “achieving piece – an appropriate classification for a period of leadership marked by increased global cooperation and international engagement for Japan. His wife, the Empress Michiko, was the first commoner to marry a Japanese monarch. Both the emperor and empress were well-liked and deeply respected by the Japanese people, a reflection of their efforts to bridge the gap between the palace and the people. The pair also worked tirelessly to strengthen ties with their Asian neighbors through numerous visits abroad.
While Emperor Akihito may become the first Japanese emperor to abdicate in the modern era, beginning with the Meiji Restoration in 1868, the move is not without precedent. In fact, nearly half of Japan’s 124 former emperors have abdicated over the 2,000-year history of the Japanese imperial line. Abdication was most common for Japanese emperors during the Heian period. Striving to avoid the time-consuming rituals that reigning emperors had to perform and to counterbalance the powers of regents and the warrior class, Japanese emperors began retiring and withdrawing from the courts to live in and covertly rule from a monastery while their chosen successor acted as the imperial figurehead of Japan. This system, known as Insei, or monastery rule, continued for another 200 years after the establishment of the Kamakura shogunate, although the practice decreased considerably after the rise of the shogunate in 1192. The last Japanese emperor to abdicate was the Emperor Kokaku, the founder of the current dynastic imperial branch leading up to Akihito. Kokaku ruled for 37 years and abdicated in favor of a successor in 1817.
In a little over a year, Crown Prince Naruhito will inherit the Chrysanthemum Throne from his father at the age of 58. Although concerns surrounding his father’s desire to abdicate have been cleared, questions still linger about what or who will come next. The Crown Prince and Princess have one child, Princess Aiko. As Japanese law stipulates that only male royals may inherit the Chrysanthemum Throne, it appears that Naruhito’s brother, Fumihito, will follow in place of young Aiko. Although changes in the law were considered after Aiko’s birth, spurred by the absence of a male heir, the matter was temporarily settled by the birth of Fumihito’s son, Hisahito, in 2006. For the time being, however, the throne is secure and will soon hold a new occupant, marking the beginning of another era in the long, prosperous history of Japan.