Akihito was Japan’s first emperor to inherit the throne under a post-war constitution that defines the monarch as a symbol of the people without political power.
He has carved out a role as an advocate of reconciliation, peace and democracy and associates say he believes only an active monarch can fulfil his true obligations. Akihito, citing concerns about his age and declining health, expressed in August 2016 his wish to abdicate while he is still well and capable. As a constitutionally defined symbol with no political power, Akihito sought understanding in a message to his people, and immediately won overwhelming public support, paving the way for the government’s approval. The last Japanese monarch to abdicate was Emperor Kokaku, who ruled from 1780 until 1817, when he handed over to his son. After abdication, Akihito will be known as “joko”, or emperor emeritus and Michiko will be known as “jokogo”, or empress emerita. Akihito and Michiko will leave the Imperial Palace and stay in another imperial residence until they move into the Togu Palace, where they lived before he inherited the throne and which will be renovated for their use.
Who is next in line, and who’s left?
Naruhito, who ascends the throne on Wednesday, is the elder of Akihito’s two sons. A musician and avid hiker, the 59-year-old Naruhito spent two years at Oxford and wrote a paper on the 18th century Thames River transport systems after studying history at Gakushuin University, a school formerly for aristocrats. His wife, Masako, a Harvard-educated former diplomat, is recovering from stress-induced conditions she developed after giving birth to their daughter Aiko amid pressure to produce a boy. Aiko, 17, is barred from inheriting under Japan’s male-only succession law, and the line goes to Naruhito’s brother, Fumihito, better known by his childhood title, Akishino. Fumihito’s 12-year-old son, Hisahito, would be next. Discussions on changing the law to allow female succession quickly ended with Hisahito’s birth, but they are expected to resume, with Akihito’s abdication raising concerns about the royal family’s future. Most Japanese support female succession despite opposition by conservatives in the government and its ultra-right-wing supporters, who want the family to be a model for a paternalistic society.
What will happen at the abdication ceremony?
The Taiirei-Seiden-nogi, or main Ceremony of the Abdication of His Majesty the Emperor, is expected to take place at the Matsu-no-Ma state room in the Imperial Palace. It begins at 17:00 local time (08:00 GMT) with Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko entering the room and will last about 10 minutes. Over 330 attendants will also be present. The ceremony will end with Akihito delivering his final address as emperor, though he will technically remain emperor until midnight.