Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko wrap up a ceremony Sunday in Tokyo at the National Theatre of Ja...

Japan’s imperial history is a curious mixture of myth and reality. Whether it is about the sacred treasures or the ruling emperor’s lineage with the legendary first emperor of the dynasty, it is shrouded in mystery. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Japan’s imperial family is its ancientness. It traces back to the legendary Emperor Jimmu, a descendant of the sun goddess Amaterasu, who ascended to the throne in 660 BC. Since that period until the departing Emperor’s father, the Japanese monarchs had been revered as the gods. Emperor Akihito’s father whose turbulent rule, which saw the Japanese defeat in World War 2, ended with his demise in 1989.

The WW2’s defeat brought two changes in Japan’s politics. Not only did it un-divine the institution of the emperor, but it also depoliticized the emperor’s role in Japanese affairs. Since then, the emperor’s political role has been reduced to a ceremonial role, just like a British monarch’s role in the UK’s politics (Herskovitz, 2019).

Although historically the individuals with humble backgrounds, and in some instances, even women have ascended to the throne, the current constitution of Japan prescribes now that only a male offspring in the male line belonging to the imperial lineage will be crowned as an emperor (2019). And this constitutional compulsion that the Japanese Emperor must rule until he dies, became a problem for the aging monarch, perhaps even before he expressed it publicly in 2016. The soft-spoken Emperor had indicated his desire to step down from the throne and urged the lawmakers to legislate according, citing health reasons following his heart surgery and prostate cancer (Hollingsworth, Jozuka, Ripley, & Wakatsuki, 2019). Emperor Akihito had first made his wish known in 2010. But it was on August 08, 2016, that he made it explicitly clear in a video message, expressing his inability to fulfill the ceremonial roles attached to the office that he no longer desires to continue, but is forced to under the constitution. Eventually, special legislation in 2017 paved the way for the emperor to leave the throne to his son. Interestingly, the legislation did not amend the imperial law itself, but was limited to giving the emperor Akihito a one-time exception (Hara, 2019).

Finally, on April 30, 2019, Emperor Akihito formally abdicated, becoming the first monarch to do so in the country’s 200-year history and with this ended the official Heisei era.

Unlike his father’s era, the Emperor Akihito’s reign, now the Emperor Emeritus, is marked by a relative calm and his unprecedented connection with his people, whose love for their monarch was manifest in the huge public gathering outside the Imperial Palace during the abdication ceremony (Hollingsworth, Jozuka, Ripley, & Wakatsuki, 2019). In the ceremony, the outgoing Emperor thanked his people whom he ruled for 30 years (McGurry, 2019).

Before this, an imperial abdication in Japan took place in 1817 with the abdication of Emperor Kokaku and the practice has not been an exception in Japan’s history where over half of the monarchs have abdicated in the favor of their younger successors. It was the Imperial House Law in 1889 during the Meiji government, which had banned the abdication that caused the constitutional barrier for the outgoing Emperor (The Emperor and abdication, 2016).