TOKYO - The much-revered Emperor Akihito stepped down on Tuesday (April 30) after an eventful three-decade reign during which he traversed the whole of Japan and made overseas trips to pray for those who died in World War II.
The 85-year-old Emperor gave his most heartfelt thanks to the public in the 10-minute Taiirei Seiden no Gi ceremony that began at 5pm (4pm Singapore time) in the most regal of spaces in the Imperial Palace - the Matsu no Ma, or State Room.
"Since ascending the throne 30 years ago, I have performed my duties as the Emperor with a deep sense of trust in and respect for the people, and I consider myself most fortunate to have been able to do so.
"I sincerely thank the people who accepted and supported me in my role as the symbol of the State," he said, adding that he hopes the new era will be peaceful and stable for Japan and the world.
This was the final official ritual for a man who is highly regarded as the People's Emperor in Japan, and a major soft power icon abroad for his expressions of deep remorse and sorrow over a brutal war that was waged in the name of his father.
By stepping down, he gave up both the Chrysanthemum Throne and a role he has come to embrace - of being "the symbol of the State and of the unity of the People". Japan, too, will draw the curtain on the Heisei (achieving peace) era on Tuesday, with the hashtag #heiseisaigonohi (the last day of Heisei) trending on social media.
Emperor Akihito, who ascended the throne on Jan 7, 1989 after the death of his father, will become Emperor Emeritus Akihito from Wednesday. His wife, Empress Michiko, 84, will become Empress Emerita Michiko.
His elder son Crown Prince Naruhito, 59, will succeed him as the 126th emperor in the world's oldest hereditary monarchy, a semi-mythical lineage that dates back to 660BC. At midnight Wednesday, Japan will ring in the Reiwa (beautiful harmony) epoch.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said: "Going forward I will devote my most utmost efforts, with the footsteps of Your Majesties firmly imprinted in my mind, to build a future that is peaceful and full of hope, which the people can take pride in."
Messages of appreciation poured in from world leaders. South Korean President Moon Jae-in expressed his appreciation to Emperor Akihito for helping to improve bilateral ties during his reign, noting his overtures that emphasised peace.
Singapore President Halimah Yacob pointed to the "indelible legacy" that Emperor Akihito will leave for Japan, given his "tireless and selfless efforts in working for the people of Japan (that) have become synonymous with the peace and stability".
Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong noted the novel economic situations and the changing strategic and security environment that Japan grappled with in the Heisei era. He said: "Your Majesty's compassion, devotion to your people, and unwavering commitment to peace inspired and guided the Japanese nation in responding to these challenges."
United States President Donald Trump noted that Emperor Akihito's three-decade reign had begun from the end of the Cold War. "Our bilateral relationship was critical to navigating the global challenges of those times," he said. "As the Heisei era draws to a close and a new generation prepares to ascend the throne, I want to recognise the tremendous importance that the United States attaches to its close relationship with Japan."
Emperor Akihito's abdication rituals began on March 12, taking him to shrines in Nara and Mie prefectures in central Japan where he reported his impending abdication to the deities there. He also paid respect at his father's tomb in the Hachioji suburb in western Tokyo.
The final of the religious rituals began at about 10am on Tuesday, when Emperor Akihito, donning the traditional dark yellow sokutai robes that only the emperor may wear, informed his imperial ancestors, including the legendary sun goddess Amaterasu, of his abdication.
His wife Empress Michiko was absent at the morning ceremony, reportedly because she was suffering from pains in her neck and arms.
After the Taiirei Seiden no Gi ceremony at 5pm, Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko would reportedly make their rounds within the Imperial Palace to greet current and former Imperial family members as well as palace courtiers and aides.
As Emperor Emeritus, Akihito will be barred from taking on any official duties, including the accession ceremonies of his elder son that are scheduled to begin at 10.30am on Wednesday.
Life after abdication
Their Majesties will move to Takanawa Imperial Residence, a temporary residence in Tokyo, before eventually settling down in Togu Palace on the Akasaka Estate in the capital once renovation works are completed.
Imperial Household Agency (IHA) officials told Kyodo News that in retirement, the couple will continue to pray for the country and its people, while spending more time on their personal pursuits including listening to music and reading.
Akihito is a keen marine biologist who is one of the world's top authorities on the goby fish. He has published a seminal paper - Some Morphological Characters Considered to be Important in Gobiid Phylogeny - in 1986. He will continue to periodically visit the Imperial Palace to continue his research, the officials added.
Mixed feelings among Japanese
Light rain and gloomy weather on Tuesday did not deter well-wishers, many of whom were from elsewhere in Japan who made use of the unprecedented 10-day stretch of Golden Week public holidays to converge on the capital.
Despite the ceremonies being held behind closed doors, Mr Naoomi Kuroshima, 64, from Hokkaido, told Reuters that he went to the Imperial Palace as he wanted to "pay my last respect, to say my 'thank you'".
He said he was so grateful for the couple's visit to Hokkaido after a magnitude-6.7 earthquake in September last year killed about 40 people, injured nearly 700, and caused prefecture-wide blackouts.
But many others were ambivalent, including undergraduate Airi Sugimoto, 20, who told The Straits Times that she found the entire imperial institution too far-removed from everyday life. "I can't help but wonder if their role as a symbol is particularly important," she said.
The People's Emperor
One of the royal couple's greatest legacies are their visits to disaster-stricken areas to uplift survivors.
News images of Akihito rolling up his sleeves and kneeling down to speak to survivors at their eye level while clasping their hands remain seared in the minds of many Japanese.
This is unprecedented. His father Emperor Hirohito, known posthumously as Emperor Showa, had been born a demigod, and experts say he never really grew into the more prosaic role as "the symbol of the State and of the unity of the People" that was defined in the US-written Constitution of 1947 after Japan's defeat in World War II.
The liberal Asahi daily said in an editorial tribute to the Emperor on Tuesday: "The way he kneels and talks with ordinary citizens as equals has been criticised by rightists who want the imperial family to project dignity and majesty. But many Japanese have accepted and welcomed his style."
Former IHA Grand Steward Noriyuki Kazaoka told the Mainichi Shimbun: "The Emperor always prioritised his public duties, and he often made his stance clear that it was important to cherish the public."
He added: "It is an era when Their Majesties have worked together in establishing the ideal way the symbol of the state should be, exactly as it is desired by the public."
First abdication since 1817
This is the first abdication since Emperor Kokaku gave up the throne in 1817 in favour of his son. Monarchs were powerless figureheads during the feudal shogunate era, but had power vested in them after the Meiji Restoration of 1868.
The Imperial Household Law of 1889 spelt out imperial succession rules for the first time, explicitly stating that succession can only take place upon the death of the reigning monarch so as to deter power struggles that could unsettle the rule of a man who had then been deemed "sacred and inviolable".
While Emperor Akihito, who has undergone prostate cancer surgery in 2003 and a heart bypass surgery in 2012, has been in good health, he has suffered from fatigue due to his old age.
He surprised the country in August 2016 with a rare national televised address, in which he hinted at his wish to step down over fears that his advance age will prevent him from fully performing his duties as "the symbol of the State and of the unity of the People".
His abdication was only allowed under a one-time special law, with the government taking into account popular sentiment.
This means that the right to abdicate will not apply to the reign of Naruhito, 59, as Emperor. His younger brother Prince Akishino, 53, will become Crown Prince and the first in line for succession.
He will be followed by Prince Akishino's son Prince Hisahito, 12, and then Emperor Akihito's 83-year-old younger brother Prince Hitachi.
Women, who could once reign as empresses, were barred from inheriting the imperial throne, which means the burden of producing a son could fall squarely on the shoulders of Prince Hisahito and his future wife.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told the Mainichi daily that Tokyo will begin discussions on measures to ensure the stability of the imperial succession after November.