Japan Ushers in New Reiwa Era with New Emperor Naruhito
Japan formally ushered in the new Reiwa era on May 1, 2019 with the enthronement of Crown Prince Naruhito as the new Emperor of Japan. Naruhito, aged 59, succeeds his father Akihito, who abdicated the throne a day prior and took the title “Emperor Emeritus” to bring the three-decade-long Heisei era to a close.
The abdication and succession ceremonies held over the past two days mark the culmination of a historic series of events that have been unprecedented in postwar Japanese history and politics. While the concept of an Emperor of Japan abdicating his throne in favor of his relatives or offspring is not foreign to Japanese history — especially in the pre-samurai Heian Period (794-1185) that saw a number of emperors abdicate and enter the Buddhist priesthood under the “cloistered rule” system — Japan has had emperors succeed the throne upon the death of their predecessor since the 1868 Meiji Restoration. The retention of the monarchy in the wake of Japan’s defeat in the Second World War preserved this practice, with the postwar Imperial Household Law providing for succession to the throne only in cases of the death of the reigning emperor.
In July 2016, Japanese media broke the explosive news that then-Emperor Akihito was considering abdication. While the Imperial Household Agency initially denied the reports, the Emperor gave a rare televised speech on Aug. 8, 2016, in which he noted his advanced age, the difficulty in completing his ceremonial duties, and the then-upcoming 30th year of his reign. While Akihito did not explicitly state his desire for abdication in the address, the timing of his speech and the Japanese Constitution’s forbiddance of the Emperor’s intervention in political matters — such as pushing for an amendment of the Imperial Household Law to permit abdication — was widely read as Akihito’s call for his own abdication during or shortly after his 30th year on the Chrysanthemum Throne.
Ultimately, after the National Diet approved one-off abdication legislation applicable only to Akihito in June 2017, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe convened the Imperial Household Council in December 2017, which set the date for Akihito’s abdication for April 30, 2019. Preparations for the lengthy list of rituals for abdication continued throughout 2018, with the Japanese government creating a ten-day holiday period centered by designating the days for abdication and succession as national holidays in October 2018.
The Japanese government formally unveiled “Reiwa,” or “beautiful harmony,” as the new era name to be used on Naruhito’s accession to the throne on May 1, 2019, with the choice of characters drawn from a native Japanese source for the first time in history.
After attending a series of traditional rites starting in February to report on abdication to the ancestors of the Imperial Family, the official abdication ceremony took place in the evening of April 30, 2019. Emperor Akihito and his wife, Empress Michiko, entered the State Room of the Imperial Palace at around 5 p.m. local time in Western formal attire, upon which they were presented with components of the Imperial Regalia and the State and Privy seals.
After Prime Minister Abe rendered a statement explaining the legislative circumstances permitting abdication and thanking the Emperor for his service, Akihito replied with a statement of his own “sincerely wish[ing], together with the Empress, that the Reiwa era, which begins tomorrow, will be a stable and fruitful one” and “pray[ing], with all my heart, for peace and happiness for all the people in Japan and around the world.”
The imperial couple then departed the room, accompanied by chamberlains bearing the Imperial Regalia and the seals; upon the stroke of midnight, Akihito, aged 85, became the Emperor Emeritus — thus ending his reign at 30 years, three months, and 24 days — and the first Emperor of Japan to abdicate the throne in over two centuries.
The following morning, Crown Prince Naruhito, followed by male members of the Imperial Family, filed into the State Room for the accession ceremony. Starting at around 10:30 a.m., Naruhito was presented with the Imperial Regalia and the two seals as proof of his legitimate succession to the throne in a brief ten-minute affair in front of the heads and representatives of the three branches of Japan’s central government and various local government officials. Afterwards, female members of the Imperial Family entered the State Room, upon which Naruhito delivered his first remarks as the new Emperor of Japan.
The new Emperor, with his wife the new Empress Masako looking on, swore to “act according to the Constitution and fulfill my responsibility as the symbol of the state and of the unity of the people of Japan” while also echoing his father in “sincerely pray[ing] for the happiness of the people and the further development of the nation as well as the peace of the world.” Additionally, the Emperor pledged to “reflect deeply on the course followed by His Majesty the Emperor Emeritus and bear in mind the path trodden by past emperors, and will devote myself to self-improvement.”
Prime Minister Abe delivered a congratulatory statement in response to Emperor Naruhito’s remarks, stating that “amid the turbulence of international affairs… [the Japanese government is] determined to carve out Japan’s bright future full of peace and hope that we can be proud of, as well as an age where a culture can be born and nurtured as people’s minds are drawn beautifully together.”