TOKYO - Japan announced on Friday (Dec 1) the long-awaited date of abdication of revered Emperor Akihito. It will take place on April 30, 2019, the first such move in 200 years.
His elder son Crown Prince Naruhito, 57, will be the country's 126th Emperor the day after, on May 1, marking the start of a new era for Japan.
Emperor Akihito had ascended to the largely ceremonial position on January 7, 1989, the day his father Emperor Hirohito died.
But in August last year, he hinted of his desire to step down. He said in a rare nationally-televised address that old age impeded him from carrying out his duties fully even though the Imperial Household Agency had in recent years lightened his workload.
The emperor, who turns 84 on Dec 23, has had heart surgery and treatment for prostate cancer.
The decision on the abdication date was reached after the 10-member Imperial Household Council, chaired by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, met for more than an hour on Friday (Dec 1) morning.
The date will be formally reported to the Cabinet on Tuesday (Dec 5).
After he advised Emperor Akihito of the decision, Mr Abe told reporters: "A big step has been made towards the imperial succession."
He added that the government will proceed with the necessary procedures leading to abdication, which will include a decision on the new era name, "earnestly and with the blessings of the citizens".
Emperor Akihito's reign is named the heisei era (achieving peace), and his time on the throne has been marked by active efforts to soothe the wounds of a war fought in the name of his father.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga explained on Friday why the Imperial Household Council chose the April date for the abdication.
It was a "quieter environment" than another date under consideration: March 31, 2019, which coincided with the close of a fiscal year.
April 29 is Showa Day, a public holiday that marks the birthday of the late Emperor Hirohito.
Fixing the abdication for April 30 would therefore allow three consecutive days of imperial rituals for a smooth handover, said Mr Suga.
The last abdication in Japan took place in 1817 when Emperor Kokaku retired. The current move is taking place under a special one-off law passed in June.
Under the 1889 Meiji Constitution, only posthumous succession was allowed to prevent power struggles that could destabilise the imperial system.
In 1947, however, the Meiji Constitution was replaced by the war-renouncing Constitution, which stripped the Emperor of his status as a "divine ruler". The emperor is now a "symbol of the state and unity of the people", with no political power.
Separately, Prince Akishino, the emperor's younger son, dismissed concerns of the possibility that his father would undercut the symbolic status of the future Emperor Naruhito.
Noting that Emperor Akihito intended to cede all his public duties when he steps down, Prince Akishino said at a news conference ahead of his 52nd birthday on Thursday (Nov 30): "I can say clearly that it is impossible."
He added that he felt "relieved" his father can step down, and hoped his parents - his mother Empress Michiko is 83 - can "spend time relaxing" after that.
There will only be two male heirs in an uninterrupted imperial bloodline that dates back to 660BC after Crown Prince Naruhito ascends the throne: Prince Akishino, followed by the younger prince's only son, Prince Hisahito, 11.
The question of a male heir was not an issue in pre-war Japan, when the imperial family comprised as many as 12 "collateral branches".
The post-war Constitution, however, stripped the royal status of the other 11 branches as a cost-saving step for the then-poverty stricken nation.
But the shrinking pool of royals to succeed the throne - as well as to shoulder imperial duties - has forced Tokyo to either consider the idea of a woman monarch, or to reinstate the royal status of the descendants of these other "collateral branches".