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Japanese emperor: Akihito set for first abdication in 200 years

Japanese emperor Akihito is set to step down from the throne on Tuesday, which will make him the first monarch to abdicate in more than 200 years.

The 85-year-old has been given legal permission to abdicate after saying he felt unable to fulfil his role because of his age and declining health.

His son, Crown Prince Naruhito, will ascend the Chrysanthemum throne the next day, beginning a new era.

The emperor in Japan holds no political power but serves as a national symbol.

Emperor Akihito’s reign has been marked by his interactions with people suffering from disease and disaster, which has endeared him in the hearts of many Japanese people.

Why did the emperor decide to abdicate?

Akihito will be the first Japanese monarch to voluntarily relinquish the throne since 1817.

The 85-year-old had in 2016 said that he feared that his age would make it hard for him to carry out his duties and strongly hinted that he wanted to stand down.

“When I consider that my fitness level is gradually declining, I am worried that it may become difficult for me to carry out my duties as the symbol of the State,” he had said then.

Opinion polls showed that the vast majority of Japan sympathised with the emperor’s desire to retire and a year later parliament enacted a law that made his abdication possible.

His son, Crown Prince Naruhito, will take his place.

What will happen at the abdication ceremony?

The Taiirei-Seiden-nogi, or Ceremony of the Abdication of His Majesty the Emperor, is expected to take place at the Matsu-no-Ma state room in the Imperial Palace but much of it will be behind closed doors.

The ceremony will begin at 17:00 local time (08:00 GMT) with Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko entering the room. Over 330 attendants will also be present.

According to broadcaster NHK, the ceremony will last around 10 minutes.

The ceremony will end with Akihito delivering his final address as emperor, though he will technically remain emperor until midnight.

On Wednesday morning, Crown Prince Naruhito will inherit the Imperial Treasures in his first ritual as emperor.

Who is the crown prince?

Prince Naruhito is set to become Japan’s 126th emperor – and will officially lead the country into the new Reiwa era. It will mark the end of the current Heisei era, which began when Akihito ascended the throne in 1989.

The 59-year-old Naruhito was educated in Oxford and become crown prince at the age of 28.

In 1986, he reportedly met his wife Crown Princess Masako Owada at a tea party. They married in 1993.

The couple’s only child, Princess Aiko, was born in 2001. However, Japan’s current law restricts females from inheriting the throne so she is not heir to the throne.

Her uncle Prince Fumihito is first in line to the throne followed by her cousin, 12-year-old Prince Hisahito.

How are Japanese people marking the handover?

The country’s Golden Week break – its annual spring holiday – has been extended to a record 10 days this year to mark the ascension of the new emperor.

The abdication is seen as an almost festive affair, in contrast to when Emperor Akihito succeeded his father 30 years ago following his death – the country was then in mourning.

This time, people will be going on holidays, flocking to cinemas, or staying at home and watching the abdication and ascension ceremonies- which will both be live streamed.

This will be the first time anyone alive will get to watch an abdication ceremony.

It will also be the second ever televised coronation. Emperor Akihito’s ascension to the throne was shown live on TV some 30 years ago.

Why is the Japanese monarchy important?

It’s the oldest continuing hereditary monarchy in the world. Legends date it back to about 600 BC.

In fact, Japanese emperors used to be seen as gods, but the country’s previous emperor Hirohito – the father of Akihito – publicly renounced his divinity at the end of World War Two, as part of Japan’s surrender.

But it was Emperor Akihito who helped repair the damage to Japan’s reputation after the war.

He is known for removing the barrier between the people and the monarchy.

Emperors rarely ever interacted with the public, but Akihito redefined the role – and has come to be known for his compassion with survivors of disasters.

In 1991, two years after he ascended the throne, Akihito and the empress broke with norms and kneeled down to speak to people affected by a volcanic eruption in Nagasaki and have continued to do so.

Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko meeting with evacuees after a tsunami in 2011
Their interactions with people suffering from chronic diseases such as leprosy, who have been marginalised in Japan, were also a sharp departure from imperial families of the past.

Finally, Akihito also took up the role of diplomat becoming an unofficial ambassador for Japan and travelling extensively to other countries, something that Naruhito is expected to continue.

bbc

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