The imperial palace grounds in central Tokyo are bathed in spring sunshine. Joggers completing lunchtime circuits of the moat artfully dodge groups of foreign tourists. Office workers tuck into lunches of onigiri rice balls and tea.
On the other side of the moat, hidden behind lines of trees, the palace is preparing for a historical transition. Early in the evening of April 30, Emperor Akihito will enter the building’s state room and, in the presence of the grand chamberlain, the prime minister and other senior politicians, become the first Japanese monarch to abdicate in more than 200 years .
At the end of a ceremony lasting just 10 minutes and steeped in the rituals of Shintoism, Japan’s indigenous religion, the Heisei era, which began with Akihito’s succession in January 1989, will come to an abrupt end.
Late the following morning, his eldest son, Naruhito, will enter the same room and inherit a sword, a jewel and a mirror — three “sacred treasures” said to have been bequeathed to the imperial line by the mythical sun deity Amaterasu, and which serve as proof of his accession to the throne. In keeping with their mythological status, the regalia will remain hidden in boxes even when they are handed to the new emperor.
Shortly after, dressed in multiple layers of silk robes and a black headdress, the 126th occupant of the chrysanthemum throne will read a short statement setting the tone for his reign. The prime minister, Shinzo Abe, will welcome his accession on behalf of the Japanese people.
And so, over two simple ceremonies devoid of the public pageantry associated with western monarchies, the era of Reiwa — or beautiful harmony — will commence. Japan, though, will have to wait until the autumn to see their new Oxford-educated emperor being driven through the streets of Tokyo with the empress, Masako, in an open-top limousine.
There will be none of the sombre restraint that marked the death of Japan’s wartime emperor, Hirohito, and the start of the Heisei era three decades ago.
“There are various views on the merits of the emperor system, but the consensus seems to be to put any opposition to one side and receive the new emperor positively,” says Eiichi Miyashiro, an imperial family historian and senior staff writer for the Asahi Shimbun newspaper. “The last time we had a new emperor was because his father had died. But no one has died this time, so it’s perfectly fine for the Japanese people to celebrate.”
But they are also taking stock of Akihito’s 30-year reign, a time of economic uncertainty, demographic upheaval and a failure to come to terms with the legacy of the Second World War.
Tessa Morris-Suzuki, professor emerita of Japanese history at the Australian National University, said Akihito would be remembered for his carefully choreographed attempts to heal the historical scars left by Japanese militarism in China and on the Korean peninsula in the name of his father.
“This reflects the fact that he grew up in the shadow of the war,” says Morris-Suzuki, adding that Akihito’s childhood tutor, Elizabeth Gray Vining, an American Quaker, left a lasting impression on the then crown prince.
Akihito’s reign was still in its infancy when he became the first Japanese monarch in modern times to visit China.
Accompanied by Empress Michiko — a non-royal whom he met on a tennis court — his visit was opposed by right-wingers in Japan, while Chinese people demanded an apology for Japanese atrocities before and during the war.
Instead, Akihito navigated the potential diplomatic minefield while adhering to a postwar constitutional ban on any involvement in politics. He told his hosts that Japan had “inflicted great suffering on the people of China”, adding, “I deeply deplore this”. Two years earlier, he delivered a similar message in Tokyo to the then South Korean president, Roh Tae-woo, over Japan’s 1910-45 colonisation of the Korean peninsula.
Those remarks set the tone for the rest of his reign, with reconciliation at the heart of the imperial couple’s visits to theatres of the Pacific war: Okinawa, Saipan, Peleliu island in Palau and, as recently as 2016, the Philippines.
“Akihito’s visits to former battlegrounds and his comments about the war made a difference, though only a smallish one, as he was inevitably constrained by the constitutional limits of his position,” says Morris-Suzuki.
“I also think that he will be remembered for the way in which he did everything he could, again within the confines of his position, to defend the postwar constitution.”
While Hirohito’s wartime role continues to divide Japanese three decades after his death, his son “sought to turn a new page by atoning for the past deeds of the Japanese empire, while also groping for a new role as the emperor”, says Koichi Nakano, a political science professor at Sophia University in Tokyo.
“As Japan’s politics shifted to the right after the end of the Cold War, Akihito ended up becoming an unlikely liberal, pacifist voice and a committed defender of postwar values. In that sense he partially healed the historical wounds caused by the war.”
The postwar constitution bans Japan from using force to settle disputes and stripped Hirohito and all future Japanese emperors of their divine status, proclaiming them “the symbol of the state and the unity of the people”.
“The Heisei era is interesting because Japan learned what the emergence of a truly symbolic emperor looked like,” says Christopher Gerteis, a senior lecturer in contemporary Japanese history at London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies. “That process will continue under the next emperor, unless there are changes to the parts of the constitution that relate to the emperor. But that is probably not going to happen.”
In his first public utterance as emperor, Akihito vowed to work alongside the people to protect the constitution. In recent years, that has pitted him against conservative ideologues — notably Abe — who believe that an official adherence to pacifism, imposed by US occupation authorities, perpetuates “masochistic” feelings of guilt over Japan’s wartime conduct.
Akihito’s abdication will take place amid speculation that Abe is poised to begin his attempt to rewrite Japan’s supreme law so that it makes explicit mention of the country’s military, known as the self-defence forces.
At the end of last year, the 85-year-old emperor said he took “deep comfort” from the fact that Japan had not fought in wars during his time on the throne. But his reign is associated with national trauma of a different kind.
The state’s postwar contract with its citizens, practically guaranteeing lifetime employment, pay rises and promotions and a comfortable retirement, gave way to the “lost decades” of rising public debt and deflation, and the spiralling cost of health and welfare services in one of the world’s greyest societies.
People in their 20s and 30s “feel abandoned” by Japan, according to Gerteis. “Economic stagnation has hurt them immensely. It’s put them in a position where retirement is never really going to happen. They were robbed of the kind of affluent future that their parents experienced. They belong to a lost generation, and it’s not their fault.”
But if Japan’s collective memory of the Heisei era is marked by ambivalence, public affection for Akihito remains undiluted, despite pockets of opposition to the use of taxpayers’ money to pay for abdication and accession rituals dripping with religious significance.
“The emperor is no longer a ruler, but a symbol of the people,” says Miyashiro. “The current emperor has made that style his own. He doesn’t look down on ordinary people, but tries to see things from their perspective. You can see that in the way he and Empress Michiko talk to victims of natural disasters. People seem to have an affinity with that. That’s why they were sympathetic when he indicated in 2016 that he wanted to abdicate.”
Outside the palace grounds, 71-year-old Koichi Tanaka contemplates the imminent arrival of the third imperial era of his lifetime. “I was born just after the war, so I have strong memories of the previous emperor,” says Tanaka.
“The current emperor managed to modernise the imperial household, first by marrying someone from outside the imperial family, and then by creating a role for himself that was very different from that of his father. The Heisei era was neither here nor there for me as an individual, but the Heisei emperor is a remarkable man.”