A special imperial household committee decided on December 1 that Emperor Akihito will abdicate his throne on April 30, 2019, becoming the first Japanese emperor to abdicate in 200 years. His heir apparent, Crown Prince Naruhito, will succeed him on the following day.
The imperial household committee, led by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, took into account the impact the transition would have on the daily lives of Japanese citizens and other political factors in its decision. Because of nationwide local elections and discussions regarding the national budget that will take place in spring 2019, the committee decided to set the date in the end of April. Moreover, April is often the beginning of the school year and new employment in Japan. This could symbolize the beginning a new life.
After the decision, Abe said, “We will make our utmost effort to make sure that the Emperor’s abdication and the Crown Prince’s succession will be carried out with no incident, with the blessing of the Japanese people.”
Emperor Akihito had announced on television last August of his desire to abdicate his throne. In his speech, he cited concerns that his deteriorating health would hinder him from carrying out his duties as emperor. He would be the first emperor to abdicate in modern Japanese history and the first since Emperor Kokaku, who retired from his throne in 1817.
Akihito’s abdication will also change Japan’s era name, known in Japanese as gengo (元号). This will have an important impact on Japanese society because the Japanese calendar with the use of gengo is still widely observed in Japan, instead of the Gregorian calendar. 2017, for example, is more often known in Japan as Heisei 29 (平成29年), marking the twenty-ninth year of Emperor Akihito’s reign. 2019 will thus mark the first year of a new gengo, although the name of the gengo has yet to be announced.
In an interview in Haneda Airport in Tokyo, a 30-year-old woman from Yamaguchi said, “I can’t imagine the next era, but because the Tokyo Olympics will be held in 2020, I hope that the new gengo will create a brighter image of Japan.”
Though holding no real political power, Emperor Akihito is regarded fondly by many in Japan. Akihito is often considered as a symbol of peace and even a moderating figure in Japan’s increasingly nationalistic political landscape, despite his father Emperor Hirohito’s controversial role in Japan’s militarization and atrocities committed during the Second World War.
Akihito’s abdication has also brought up numerous controversial debates concerning the imperial succession system, especially over whether female members of the family can ascend the throne.