For the first time in 217 years, a Japanese emperor will cede his place on the imperial throne.
On April 30, Japan’s ailing 85-year-old Emperor Akihito will abdicate and be replaced the following day by his 59-year-old son, Crown Prince Naruhito.
Naruhito and his wife, Crown Princess Masako, are a modern couple. Both have studied overseas – he at Oxford University, she in Russia, England and the United States. Born after World War II, Naruhito will be the first Japanese emperor not shaped by the upheaval that war brought to his country.
Many Japanese are hopeful that these younger royals can update Japan’s ancient “Chrysanthemum Throne.” But changing a 14-century-old monarchy to reflect the times will not be easy.
A democracy with an emperor
Japan has the oldest continuous monarchy in the world.
The current emperor, Akihito, is the 125th in a royal line of succession officially founded in the 7th century. According to Japanese legend, however, the Chrysanthemum Throne dates back 2,600 years – to the country’s founding in 660 B.C. by Emperor Jimmu, a descendant of the Shinto sun goddess, Amaterasu.
Despite their sacred status, Japanese emperors have traditionally reigned but not run the country. For most of its long history, military governments or oligarchs governed Japan in a day-to-day sense.
In 1947, two years after its surrender to Allied forces, Japan became a democracy, with several political parties, parliament and a prime minister. The monarchy also changed profoundly after World War II.
Emperor Hirohito – father of Japan’s current emperor, Akihito – renounced “the false conception that the emperor is divine” in 1946 under pressure from Allied forces. The largely American-written 1947 constitution that followed officially reduced the emperor to a figurehead.
Still, the monarchy continued. And Hirohito remained on the throne until his death at age 88 in 1989.
The people’s emperor
Hirohito’s son, Emperor Akihito has, by most accounts, been a hugely popular monarch – one who put his personal stamp on this institution.
As a young crown prince in U.S.-occupied Japan, Akihito studied the English language and western culture, and his American tutor sought to encourage independence in her young student. Akihito later broke with the Japanese royal tradition of arranged marriages by wedding a commoner, Michiko Shoda, whom he met playing tennis.
Imperial Household Agency of Japan/Handout via Reuters
Akihito has brought the monarchy closer to the people of Japan in other ways over the last 30 years, too.
He spent more time outside the confines of his palace, interacting with ordinary Japanese, than his aloof father. He and the empress also made official visits to some 35 countries.
After the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that triggered Japan’s Fukushima nuclear crisis, Emperor Akihito made a historic television appearance, urging his people not to give up hope, and visited refugees at an evacuation center.
In a 2016 speech, Akihito indirectly signaled his intention to abdicate, saying that his advanced age and declining health made it difficult for him to carry out his duties.
Resigning on April 30 will be the last modernizing act of Akhito’s 30-year reign.
The crown prince says that as emperor he hopes to emulate his father’s personal touch – to “share the joys and sorrows of the people.”
Controversy over all-male succession
The abdication of a living emperor created a legal problem for Japan, where imperial law defines imperial succession only upon death.
The last Japanese monarch to step down, Emperor Kokaku, did so in 1817 for unknown reasons, and before Japan became a democracy. There is simply no modern precedent for Akihito’s decision.