Emperor Akihito abdicates today, April 30. His retirement comes two years and eight months after he suggested in a video message that he desired to step down and created a stir in society. Emperor Akihito’s abdication is the first since Edo-period Emperor Kokaku chose the same path 202 years ago.
Emperor Akihito’s enthronement was the first under the postwar Constitution, which stipulates that the emperor shall be the symbol of the state and of the unity of the people. During the 30-year Heisei era that ends on April 30, the Emperor pursued the ideal way an emperor should carry out his duties.
The Emperor has visited all prefectures of Japan and attached importance to interacting with ordinary citizens who support regional communities. The Emperor said in his video message that he was able to carry out the most important duties of the Emperor with deep respect and love for the people.
His father, Emperor Showa, used the phrase, “with deep respect and love for the people,” in describing his relations with the public in his so-called “Humanity Declaration” in 1946, shortly after the end of World War II. Emperor Akihito apparently used the phrase to reflect his intention to build up new relations with the public.
There is no clear definition of “the symbol.” Emperor Akihito has pursued the ideal way an emperor should act as the symbol since he was crown prince. He married Empress Michiko, who became the first commoner to become crown princess. Since then, the Imperial Couple has proactively interacted with citizens. Their goal has been to strengthen their bonds with the people.
His Majesty described that the role of an emperor is to “pray for peace and happiness of all the people” and emphasized that “in some cases it is essential to stand by the people, listen to their voices, and be close to them in their thoughts.” True to his word, the Emperor visited all of Japan’s 47 prefectures, including those hit by natural disasters, twice each. He also traveled to 55 remote islands in 21 prefectures as emperor and crown prince, although it was not easy to go to these islands. By visiting areas left behind in development, the Emperor has demonstrated that these areas are part of Japan’s community. Based on the same spirit, he repeatedly visited care homes for the disabled and sanatoriums for Hansen’s disease patients.
In his video message, Emperor Akihito expressed concerns that it might become difficult for him to carry out his duties as the symbol of the state with his whole being. In response, some have expressed views that it is enough for the Emperor to just exist and that a regent should be appointed if it becomes difficult for the Emperor to perform his duties. However, his message won empathy from the public, leading to the enactment of a one-off law allowing Emperor Akihito to step down. This is obviously because the public respects the Emperor, who has done his best to perform his duties as the symbol of the state.
There had been almost no debate on the definition of the symbol of the state and of the unity of the people until the Emperor’s video message was released, and the matter was left up to the Emperor himself. His video message motivated members of the public to consider the ideal way an emperor should carry out his duties as the symbol.
Emperor Akihito’s activities that are not necessarily bound by past customs have been called “Heisei-style.” The Emperor even considered what will happen after the Imperial Couple passes away and decided that their bodies should be cremated instead of being buried to simplify funeral services for them and that their mausoleum should be downscaled. He also requested that the scale of security when going out be relaxed to minimize its impact on the people’s daily lives.
His Majesty has also squarely faced the negative legacy of World War II during the Showa era. The Emperor once said, “As I grew up, there was not a time without war.” The Second Sino-Japanese War broke out in 1937 when he was 3 years old. Emperor Akihito is said to have developed his earnest desire for peace and friendship as he saw his father Emperor Showa’s predicament during his childhood and visited Europe and the United States in the postwar period.
In an address at the memorial ceremony for the war dead in August 1995, Emperor Akihito underscored the need to look back on history and expressed his earnest hope that the horrors of war will never be repeated. On the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the end of the war, he mentioned “the feelings of deep remorse over the last war.” As the number of those who experienced the war has been decreasing, the Emperor conveyed his concerns to the public that memories of the war will fade away by using different words in milestone years.
Emperor Akihito has particularly deep affection toward Okinawa, the only area in Japan that experienced a ground battle during the last war. When he first visited the southernmost prefecture in July 1975 as crown prince, leftist radicals hurled a Molotov cocktail. At the time, the Emperor issued a statement saying, “Huge ultimate sacrifices made (in the war) cannot be atoned for by momentary acts or words …” His efforts to patiently stay present to the pains of Okinawa have remained unchanged.
He visited parts of Japan, Saipan, Palau and the Philippines and other areas that were fierce battlefields in the war to console the souls of the war dead. He bowed deeply to the war dead, friend and foe alike, making a deep impression on people around the world.
The long journey of Emperor Akihito, who joined hands with Empress Michiko in establishing a new image of the Imperial Family that fit with the times while respecting the traditions of the Imperial Household, comes to an end. As the era changes from Heisei to Reiwa, the ideal way the Imperial Household should act will further vary with the changing times.
His Majesty’s efforts to be with the people over the 30 years of the Heisei era will certainly be engraved in the memories of numerous members of the public throughout the ages.