Dubai- Japan's 85-year-old Emperor Akihito ends his three-decade reign on Tuesday when he abdicates to his son Crown Prince Naruhito.
He's the first emperor to abdicate in 200 years.
Japan's Emperor Akihito will step down from the Chrysanthemum Throne on Tuesday, the first abdication in the world's oldest imperial family for two centuries, ending 30 years of his popular reign and ushering in a new era.
The abdication brings down the curtain on the current "Heisei" era, which started in January 1989 at the height of Japan's economic boom, and kicks off a new imperial era called "Reiwa" meaning "beautiful harmony".
The popular Akihito, 85, stunned the nation in 2016 when he signalled his desire to take a back seat, citing his age and health problems - he has been treated for prostate cancer and has also undergone heart surgery.
How is it different from usual successions?
As a constitutionally defined symbol with no political power, Akihito sought understanding in a message to his people, and immediately won overwhelming public support in 2016, paving the way for the government's approval.
With Japan's Imperial House Law lacking a provision on abdication by a reigning emperor and virtually allowing only posthumous succession, the government enacted a one-time law to allow Akihito's abdication, the first in 200 years.
Winning his abdication was part of changes Akihito has brought to the palace: He was the first emperor to marry a commoner, Empress Michiko, and has decided to be cremated upon his death, a plan that would break a centuries-old burial custom.
Akihito: Ends a reign marked by modernisation
Japan's outgoing Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko dramatically modernised the tradition-bound monarchy, bringing themselves closer to the public and boosting popular support for the household.
Born in 1933 just as Japan was embarking on its militaristic sweep across Asia, Akihito was 11 when World War Two ended in defeat.
He inherited the Chrysanthemum Throne in 1989, becoming Japan's 125th emperor upon the death of his father, Emperor Hirohito.
Akihito has broken new ground with everything from his decision to marry for love to his outspoken calls for peace and expressions of regret over Japan's wartime role.
He was the first imperial heir to marry a commoner, Michiko Shoda, daughter of a flour magnate. The two met at a tennis tournament and married in 1959 in a wedding that fuelled a media frenzy.
The then-crown prince's decision to buck a traditional arranged marriage and wed for love was seen as a powerful affirmation of democratic Japan.
The young couple also chose to live with their children rather than allowing nannies to raise them as had been customary.
Closer to the public, breaking grounds
The pair have come to be known for their presence at the side of survivors of disasters.
After the 2011 killer earthquake and tsunami that triggered the Fukushima nuclear meltdown, Akihito made an unprecedented television address to calm a panicky public.
The couple were in Fukushima two months later, wider public however has cheered the couple's displays of compassion and relative closeness to the people, something Naruhito has pledged to continue.
Akihito's popularity has been seen as allowing him to voice opinions that sail close to the wind given the prohibition on a political role for the emperor.
- April 10, 1959 - Wedding of Akihito and Michiko Shoda, the first commoner to marry an heir to the Japanese throne.
- July 17, 1975 - Akihito and Michiko visit Okinawa, site of fierce fighting in final months of World War Two. A fire bomb is hurled at them as they lay flowers at a memorial but the royal couple are unharmed.
- Nov. 12, 1990 - Akihito ascends the Chrysanthemum Throne in the first enthronement ceremony to be shown on television.
- May 24, 1990 - Akihito expresses "deepest regret" for the suffering of the Korean people caused by Japan's 1910-1945 colonisation of the Korean peninsula and the war.
- Oct. 23, 1992 - Akihito is Japan's first modern monarch to visit China. The emperor expresses "deep sorrow" for the suffering Japan inflicted on the Chinese people.
- April 23, 1993 - Akihito visits Okinawa again, becoming the first Japanese monarch to visit the southern island.
- Jan. 31, 1995 - Akihito and Michiko visit western city of Kobe following a huge earthquake. In a break with conservative tradition, they kneel to speak with survivors.
- March 16, 2011 - Akihito makes unprecedented televised address urging the public to help each other after the March 11 triple disaster of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown.
- Aug. 15, 2015 - On the 70th anniversary of Japan's defeat in World War Two, Akihito expressed "deep remorse" over the war, a nuanced departure from his annual script.
- Aug. 8, 2016 - In rare video address, Akihito says he worries that age will make it difficult to fully carry out his duties, remarks seen as suggesting that he wanted to abdicate.
- Feb. 24, 2019 - Akihito marks 30 years on the throne with a call for Japan to open up and forge sincere ties with the world.
Akihito: Life after abdication
Akihito will hold a new title, Emperor Emeritus, but he will be fully retired from official duties and will no longer sign documents, receive foreign dignitaries, attend government events or perform palace rituals. He won't even attend his son's succession rituals and will largely recede from public appearances.
Emperor Akihito life in pictures
His activities will be strictly private so as not to interfere with the serving emperor.
Akihito is expected to enjoy his retirement, going to museums and concerts, or spending time on his goby research at a seaside Imperial villa.
After abdication, Akihito and Michiko will move to a temporary royal residence before eventually switching places with Naruhito after refurbishments at each place.
Who is next in line?
Naruhito, who ascends the throne on Wednesday, is the elder of Akihito's two sons. A musician and avid hiker, 59-year-old Naruhito spent two years at Oxford and wrote a paper on the 18th century Thames River transport systems after studying history at Gakushuin University, a school formerly for aristocrats.
His wife, Masako, a Harvard-educated former diplomat, is recovering from stress-induced conditions she developed after giving birth to their daughter Aiko amid pressure to produce a boy.
Aiko, 17, is barred from inheriting under Japan's male-only succession law, and the line goes to Naruhito's brother, Fumihito, better known by his childhood title, Akishino.
Fumihito's son, Hisahito, 12, would be next.
Discussions on changing the law to allow female succession quickly ended with Hisahito's birth, but they are expected to resume, with Akihito's abdication raising concerns about the family's future.
Most Japanese support female succession despite opposition by conservatives in the government and its ultra-right-wing supporters, who want the family to be a model for a paternalistic society.
The procedures to abdicate
Akihito will announce his abdication in a palace ritual on Tuesday evening, but technically he remains the emperor until midnight, when his era of Heisei, or "achieving peace," ends and Naruhito takes over, his Reiwa era of "beautiful harmony" beginning.
On Wednesday morning, Naruhito, in his first ritual as emperor, receives the Imperial regalia, including the sword and the jewel, as proof of his ascension to the throne. Aside from government officials, only adult male royals are allowed to attend, a tradition the government stuck with despite criticisms raised by the public.
The succession not by death has spread festivity across Japan, though the rituals are off-limits to the public and traffic will be tightly controlled outside the palace.
A more elaborate enthronement ceremony for Naruhito will be held in October, when he will proclaim his ascension before officials and guests from inside and outside the country.
The key ceremonies
- April 30 — Abdication ceremony (5 p.m.- 5:10 p.m.): The ceremony will take place in the Imperial Palace’s Pine Chamber. About 300 people will attend the event, broadcast live on national television.
- May 1 — Regalia inheritance (10:30-10:40 a.m.): This is the first stage of Crown Prince Naruhito’s accession to the throne. Chamberlains will put the "Three Sacred Treasures" on desks in front of the new Emperor as proof of his rightful succession.
- May 1 — Emperor’s first remarks (11:10-11:20 a.m.): Shortly afterward, Emperor Naruhito will make his first public remarks as emperor in the Pine Chamber — comments that might offer hints about his goals or hopes for his reign.
- May 4 — Emperor, Empress greet well-wishers at palace: Emperor Naruhito and Empress Masako will make their first public appearance
- Oct. 22 —Enthronement ceremony: Emperor Naruhito will proclaim his enthronement in a ceremony attended by dignitaries from nearly 200 countries.
Celebrations are planned across the country as the famously hard-working Japanese enjoy an unprecedented 10-day holiday with a series of special days off combining with the traditional "Golden Week" in May.
Akihito's eldest son, 59-year-old Crown Prince Naruhito, will take the throne the following day in a series of solemn ceremonies, he will receive the "Three Sacred Treasures" that seal his accession to the Chrysanthemum Throne.
The regalia - a sword, a mirror and a jewel - symbolise the legitimacy of the emperor.
They are so crucial to the royal family that Naruhito's grandfather, Emperor Hirohito, said that protecting them was a factor in his decision to surrender in World War Two, according to an interview conducted by his aides in 1946 and published in 1990.
"If the enemy had landed near the Bay of Ise, both the Ise Grand Shrine and Atsuta Shrine would have been put under enemy control immediately, without any chance of us moving the sacred treasures away," Hirohito was quoted as saying.
"I found it necessary to seek peace even at the sacrifice of myself," he said.
Mythical origins of the treasures
According to Japanese mythology, a mirror and a jewel were used to lure the sun goddess Amaterasu Omikami from the cave where she had withdrawn, plunging the world into darkness.
Later, the goddess granted to her grandson, Ninigi-no-Mikoto, the mirror and jewel as well as a sword that had been found in the body of an eight-headed serpent when she sent him to earth to rule Japan.
Legend has it the treasures were passed down to Ninigi-no-Mikoto's great-grandson, Jimmu, Japan's first emperor.
An eighth-century chronicle says Jimmu became emperor in the 7th century B.C., but there is doubt as to whether he ever existed.
Where are they kept?
The mirror, called Yata-no-Kagami, is kept at the Ise Grand Shrine, the holiest site in Japan's Shinto religion. The sword, Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi, is stored at the Atsuta Shrine.
Both are in central Japan.
The third treasure, a jewel called Yasakani-no-Magatama, is stored at the Imperial Palace.
At Wednesday's ceremony, the new emperor will be presented with the jewel and a sword representing the original relic kept at the Atsuta Shrine.
The mirror is not present at the ceremony but is inherited by the emperor as part of the royal succession.
What do they look like?
As sacred objects, the treasures are always encased in boxes and cannot be seen by anyone, including the emperor.
Palace officials and scholars cannot see them either, so nobody knows exactly what they look like, experts say.
Ancient records refer to one emperor who tried to open the box containing the jewel. White smoke came out and the terrified emperor ordered his aide to close it.
The mirror is probably made of bronze, with intricate designs engraved on one side, and bigger than typical ancient mirrors excavated, which are 20-30 cm (8-12 inches) in diameter, said Naoya Kase, an associate professor at Kokugakuin University.
The jewel probably comprises of a number of comma-shaped beads used as accessories and ceremonial objects in ancient times, likely red in colour, Kase said.
The sword was probably not ornamental, but a practical weapon with an iron blade, he said.
Incoming emperor Naruhito faces the delicate task of balancing tradition within the monarchy and his own modern values, including protecting his family from the palace's rigid rules.
The 59-year-old heir once criticised the sometimes stifling lifestyle imposed on royals, particularly as his wife Masako has struggled to adapt to imperial life and has long struggled with stress-induced illness.
The dawn of a new era has left many Japanese reflecting on the changes since 1989, when the country was a global economic powerhouse dominating the world of technology.
Now the country is suffering from sluggish economic growth, an ageing popular and labour shortage and has seen China and South Korea rise up to challenge its economic dominance and reputation for technological innovation.
But the new era has refired Japan's entrepreneurial spirit with firms selling everything from commemorative bottles of sake to a Wagyu-beef "emperor burger" worth $900.