Japan’s Emperor Akihito, right, waves to members of the public as Crown Prince Naruhito looks on. Photographer: Kiyoshi Ota/Bloomberg (Photographer: Kiyoshi Ota/Bloomberg)

Japan will see its first imperial abdication in two centuries at the end of April, a rare event even for a hereditary monarchy said to stretch back almost three millennia. In a succession of traditional ceremonies, Emperor Akihito, 85, will abdicate on April 30 after a reign of 31 years, and his eldest son, Crown Prince Naruhito, 59, will ascend the Chrysanthemum Throne on May 1. To mark the occasion, the country is extending its annual spring holidays -- known as Golden Week -- to an unprecedented 10 days off.

1. Why is Akihito stepping down?

In 2016, Akihito said he may no longer be physically fit enough to carry out his duties. The emperor’s powers were restricted after World War II, so Parliament had to pass a one-time law to allow for abdication. A special panel then set April 30, 2019, as the end of his imperial era known as Heisei, which can be translated as “achieving peace.” Akihito’s health problems have included heart bypass surgery in 2012 and a hospitalization for pneumonia in 2011. The last emperor to abdicate was Kokaku in 1817, who stepped down to make way for his son.

2. Who is Naruhito?

He is the oldest of the three children born to Akihito and his wife, the Empress Michiko, and has been raised to be emperor. He graduated in 1982 from the department of history at Gakushuin University in Tokyo, a school favored by the Japanese imperial family, and then studied for two years at Oxford University. He married former diplomat Masako Owada in 1993 and they have one child, Princess Aiko, 17, who is barred by law from the throne because she is female. His life has been largely free of scandal.

3. How does the abdication go?


An abdication ceremony is planned for 5 p.m. Tokyo time on April 30. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will make a few comments and then Akihito will speak. About 300 guests will be in attendance including Abe, the cabinet and dignitaries. The actual abdication will be at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo and includes a ritual where Akihito reports to his imperial ancestors that he is stepping down.

4. Then what?

The ascension ceremony takes place on the morning of May 1 at the Imperial Palace. Naruhito will inherit regalia that includes a sacred sword and jewels in a ceremony that will serve as the proof of ascension. The government said that only male adult imperial family members will attend the actual key ceremony for the ascension. About an hour after the first ceremony, there will be another ceremony open to female imperial family members. Naruhito will speak publicly for the first time as the new emperor. The ascension ceremonies stretch into November.

5. What about the public?

The events will be tightly controlled with limited access for media or the public. There will be no parade through the streets before throngs of well-wishers. That will take place in October. Later in May, U.S. President Donald Trump is set to visit Japan from May 25 to 28 and be the first foreign head of state to meet the new emperor.

6. What’s so special about Japan’s imperial family?

It’s old. Japan’s Imperial Household Agency lists Emperor Jimmu, who according to legend was a descendant of the sun goddess Amaterasu, as the first to ascend the throne in 660 B.C. The verified historical record of Japan’s imperial family starts at about the sixth century and, according to an Imperial Household Agency genealogy, includes eight empresses who reigned, two of whom did so twice. Naruhito will be the 126th emperor, by the agency’s count.

7. What does an emperor of Japan do?

Akihito’s father, Hirohito, was the last emperor designated by tradition to be a living god. After Japan’s defeat in 1945, the U.S. kept Hirohito on the throne to build unity, but made the position of emperor one for a mortal who had no say in state policy. “The Emperor shall be the symbol of the State and of the unity of the People,” the first chapter of Japan’s postwar constitution clearly states. This means the emperor stays out of politics and spends a lot of time at ceremonies. After the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, which left about 20,000 people dead or missing, Akihito and Michiko visited survivors at shelters and were seen as helping a battered nation recover through their compassion. In the final weeks of his reign, Akihito has been touring Japan with his wife and visiting shrines to let his ancestors know he is stepping down.

8. Who’s next in line?

That would be Naruhito’s younger brother, Prince Akishino. After him comes Akishino’s 12-year-old son Hisahito.

9. What does a retired Japanese emperor do?

Akihito will receive the title emperor emeritus and move into a smaller royal residence in Tokyo with Michiko. He has said he is trying to figure out what his retirement will entail. It may give him more time for his studies of the diminutive goby fish, a subject he has researched for decades.

--With assistance from Isabel Reynolds, Shoko Oda and Takashi Hirokawa.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jon Herskovitz in Tokyo at jherskovitz@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Brendan Scott at bscott66@bloomberg.net, Paul Geitner

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