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5 Things You Didn’t Know About the Emperor’s Abdication

Think Emperor Akihito’s abdication is a typical matter of protocol in Japan? Think again.

By 6 min read

Excitement is in the air—cherry blossoms are blooming and Japan is preparing for an extra long springtime holiday season. The nation’s spring break takes place annually during Golden Week, a period extending from late April to early May during which a number of holidays blissfully occur almost in succession. Most Japanese people typically only have four or five days off during Golden Week, but this year everyone gets to enjoy a whopping 10-day vacation from April 27 to May 6.

The reason? Japan’s current monarch, Emperor Akihito, is stepping down and May 1 has been designated as a one-off holiday to celebrate the ascension of his son, Crown Prince Naruhito. This is an extra special occasion considering a Japanese emperor is expected to rule until death. However, Emperor Akihito more or less decided he’d had enough of imperial rule, so he asked the government nicely to let him go—and amazingly they said yes!

That was back in 2016. It took over two years of planning, but Japan is finally just one month away from the “Reiwa” era. Announced on Monday morning, this newly named era will begin on the day Naruhito ascends the throne, signaling the reign of a new monarch and a new age in Japanese history.

If the Emperor’s abdication sounds serious, well, that’s because it is. There’s a lot going on around this unprecedented event—here are five things you might not know to help shed light on this historical moment we’re living through.

1. This isn’t the first time an emperor has abdicated

Okay, emperors aren’t technically allowed to abdicate, but this is a pretty new rule. It was only during the Meiji Era (1868-1912) that a new 1889 constitution stipulated emperors must reign until death (the 1947 post-war constitution retained this law). The current imperial line stretches back over 2,600 years, and for most of that time emperors commonly gave up their titles while still alive. The last emperor to abdicate was Emperor Kokaku, the 199th emperor of Japan, who stepped down in 1817. Akihito is only the fourth emperor to rule since the change.

The emperor is now 85 years old. During his reign, he’s had prostate cancer and heart bypass surgery. While his duties are minimal, he’s still expected to attend important events, and these responsibilities eventually began taking a toll. Though Akihito’s decision to step aside initially came as a shock to the Japanese public, it’s hard to blame him for wanting to spend the rest of his years outside the spotlight.

2. The new emperor will only have three heirs

Naruhito’s younger brother Prince Akishino, Akishino’s 12-year-old son Prince Hisahito, and Emperor Akihito’s 83-year-old brother Masahito are the only three members of the Imperial Family remaining who could possibly sit on the throne. Why so few? The Imperial Family was once massive, but that changed in 1945. After the Japanese surrender that ended WWII, the Americans took away many of the emperor’s powers and significantly cut down on royals. Branches of distant relatives who were once considered noble were reduced to commoner status.

The line has depleted even more since then due to an edict that states women who marry outside of the Imperial Family lose their royal status, rendering any male children of theirs unable to rule. Since the royal family is so limited now, most members have little choice but to marry outside of it anyway. Naruhito himself has no male children and it’s not exactly socially acceptable for emperors to have concubines as they did when this problem arose in the past. These constraints mean that the pool of possible heirs is much smaller than it ever was historically, and it’s unlikely to get any bigger.

This problem could be averted if the female family members were included in the running, but…

3. Women aren’t allowed to ascend to the throne

In the monarchy’s multi-millennia existence, eight women have sat on the throne (nine if you include legendary Empress Jingu, whose existence is debated). The first was Empress Suiko, who ordered the spread of Buddhism across the nation. Empress Go-Sakuramachi, who reigned from 1762-1771, was the last. Even after she left the throne, she served as a sort of caretaker and advisor to future rulers. But then along came that pesky Meiji Constitution which officially outlawed female rule.

Emperor Akihito (center) with his family.

In recent decades, some politicians have argued to allow both males and females to reign, but while there has been much debate, no concrete government action has been taken. The most recent related development was in 2017 when a resolution was proposed asking the government to consider allowing women to keep their royal status after marriage (and other methods of growing the Imperial Family line), but no deadline was set for this to be completed so unsurprisingly—it hasn’t been.

The current government seems unwilling to properly address the issue anytime soon posing a real threat to the world’s longest continually ruling imperial line. Without including women in the running, it could disappear entirely in the coming decades.

4. The era name change will significantly impact peoples’ lives

April 1 marked exactly one month before Naruhito officially becomes emperor. The name of a brand new era called “Reiwa,” that starts with his ascension, was announced in the morning of April 1 by Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga at a televised press conference in Tokyo. The word “Reiwa” comes from the Manyoshu (“Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves”), the oldest anthology of Japanese poetry.

Era names (gengo in Japanese) are designated by the current ruling emperor in modern times. A single era takes place from the moment an emperor ascends the throne until their death (or, in this case, abdication). The current era—which started January 8, 1989, the day Akihito became emperor—is called Heisei, which means “peace everywhere.” This means Japan is on a totally different timeline—the year 2019 was known in Japan as “Heisei 31” (the Gregorian calendar is used too, though). The new era name will have a significant impact on people’s lives, as birthdates, deadlines, and other important dates will be affected.

Rather than naming an era after an emperor, era names are adopted by monarchs posthumously. Emperor Akihito will be renamed Emperor Heisei only after his death. From today he will be known as Emperor Emeritus.

Chief Cabinet Secretary of Japan Yoshihide Suga announces the new era name as “Reiwa.”

5. The ascension actually takes place over multiple months

Emperor Akihito officially steps down on April 30—the very next day his son becomes emperor and a new era begins. However, ceremonies and other events will continue almost through the end of the year. The May 1 ascension ceremony includes formal proceedings such as Naruhito’s first meeting with the heads of government and a rite through which he will inherit the sacred sword and jewels, the imperial seal, and the state seal. The actual coronation is slated to take place much later this year on October 22. This is when the real party starts—celebrations include a motorcade at the Imperial Palace and four separate banquets entertaining foreign dignitaries. This might sound elaborate, but it’s actually a scaled down version of Akihito’s own ascension ceremony in 1989 which was criticized by the public as being too extravagant. To save on costs, and considering Akihito’s declining health, this ceremony will be much more subdued.

Still, it gives the public a reason to celebrate—or at least another day off work.

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