Emperor Akihito, turning 84 years old on December 23, will abdicate on April 30 of 2019, after months of negotiations. His elder son Crown Prince Naruhito, who will be 59 years old by then, will replace him the next day. It has been 200 years since an Emperor stepped down while he was alive, making this event very uncommon.
Due to the complexity of this unexpected situation, the resignation had to be planned with a group of judiciary and law experts to make sure that the transition goes smoothly. Among other things, there was a concern that the step down process could have overshadowed other important public events if it was at any other time.
Amongst the reasons invoked to justify his retirement, Akihito mentioned that his health was the main concern as he already had a heart surgery and prostate cancer treatments. After 30 years at the head of the Imperial Family and the state, Akihito has been a very popular and appreciated figure in Japan, deeply marking Japanese people’s imagination. He was notorious for his propensity to promote peace and reconciliation with his neighbors, as his famous speech of 1992 in China strongly attests, where he made amends for the mistakes of the past. His reign has been named “Heisei”, litterally meaning “achieving peace”. His resignation has been planned to coincide with his 30th anniversary as the Emperor.
Japan’s Imperial Family is the oldest dynasty in the world. Nowadays, however, its role at the head of the state has to be understood as a tradition, and the Emperor doesn’t hold any political powers. In fact, the Emperor’s role is restricted to ceremonial tasks in the Constitution. For instance, the 4th article of the Constitution of 1947 is read as follows: “The Emperor shall perform only such acts in matters of state as are provided for in this Constitution and he shall not have powers related to government. The Emperor may delegate the performance of his acts in matters of state as may be provided by law“. It is thus made clear that the Emperor cannot undertake any unilateral political moves.
Without a shadow of a doubt, Akihito will be remembered fondly by most of the Japanese people, as his radiant smile and friendly face features expressed an unfailing kindness. The end of his reign carries the end of an era. Hopefully, the “Heisei” will live on.