TOKYO — Japan’s Emperor Akihito formally abdicated Tuesday during a historic ceremony in Tokyo, becoming the country’s first monarch to step down from the Chrysanthemum Throne in two centuries.
His son, Crown Prince Naruhito, 59, will be inaugurated as the 126th emperor Wednesday, ushering in the Reiwa era. Akihito’s reign — and the Heisei era — officially ends at midnight on Tuesday. Hereafter the 85-year-old will be known as Emperor Emeritus Akihito.
Akihito, along with Empress Michiko and the Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, attended a short ceremony in the Matsu-no-Ma state room of the Imperial Palace.
Outside, throngs of well-wishers, both Japanese and visitors from overseas, waited in the rain-soaked grounds.
In a rare instance of speaking live on television, the ruler said that he had performed his duties as the emperor with a “deep sense of trust and respect” for the Japanese people.
“I consider myself most fortunate to have been able to do so,” he said at the small abdication ceremony.
“I sincerely wish, together with the Empress, that the Reiwa era, which begins tomorrow, will be a stable and fruitful one.”
The much-loved Akihito will be remembered for connecting with his public in a way that no other Japanese monarch has done and expressing “deep remorse” for the country’s actions during World War II.
After having heart surgery and overcoming prostate cancer in recent years, the monarch cited health reasons for stepping down.
When the Emperor was born in 1933, Japan was a very different place. War was brewing and his father, Emperor Hirohito, was revered as a human deity.
In 1940, Japan officially entered World War II on the side of Germany and Italy.
When Emperor Hirohito made a radio address surrendering in 1945, most Japanese people had never heard his voice before, despite him having been in power already for nearly 20 years.
After the war, Japan was occupied by the United States. The new constitution banned the Imperial family from engaging in politics and Emperor Hirohito renounced his divine status.
Akihito became Emperor in 1989 as Japan was still dealing with the wounds of war.
In 1992, the Emperor became the first Japanese monarch to visit China, where he said he felt a “deep sadness” for the “unfortunate period in which my country inflicted great suffering on the people of China.”
But it was in 2011, as the country reeled from the fatal earthquake and tsunami that saw more than 20,000 people die or go missing, that Akihito truly cemented his reputation as “the people’s Emperor.”
The Emperor made an unprecedented televised address — the first time any Japanese Emperor had spoken to the public on TV. “I truly hope the victims of the disaster never give up hope, take care of themselves and live strong for tomorrow,” he said.
(PHOTO: Photo Illustration/Getty images)