Japan's highly revered Emperor Akihito stepped down yesterday after an eventful three-decade reign, during which he humanised the monarchy and became the country's foremost icon of peace.
It was a testament to his legacy, marked by his deep remorse for a brutal war waged in his father's name, that the leaders of countries such as China, Russia, Singapore, South Korea and the United States offered salutations.
The 85-year-old Emperor expressed gratitude in his final address to the Japanese public, delivered in the brief Taiirei Seiden no Gi ceremony that began at 5pm and lasted only 12 minutes. It was held in the Seiden Matsu no Ma, or State Room, in the Imperial Palace.
"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," he said in the nationally televised ceremony, with Empress Michiko, 84, beside him.
"I sincerely thank the people who accepted and supported me in my role as the symbol of the State."
He expressed hope that the new reign under his elder son Naruhito, 59, who became Japan's 126th emperor at midnight, would be peaceful and stable for Japan and the world.
The austere yet august ceremony marked the final official ritual for a man who had come to be seen as the People's Emperor, having visited all 47 prefectures of the country at least twice.
He personified soft power abroad, being respected for his unassuming nature and frequent overtures of peace befitting the Heisei (achieving peace) era that he presided over.
In stepping down, he gave up both the Chrysanthemum Throne and the role he had come to embrace, as "the symbol of the State and of the unity of the People", as spelt out in the 1947 Constitution for a post-war Japan.
Seared in the minds of many Japanese are news images of Emperor Akihito, on his visits to disaster-stricken areas to comfort survivors, rolling up his sleeves and kneeling to speak to people at eye level while he clasped their hands.
He was the first emperor-in-waiting to marry a commoner in a love story that enraptured the country in the 1950s. Millions of hearts melted again yesterday when, after stepping offstage at the end of the ceremony, he turned to offer a hand to Empress Michiko.
With the end of his reign, the curtain also fell on the Heisei era, which many paid tribute to on social media. News coverage included a street poll of what people ate for their final lunch of the era, and a live broadcast of its last sunset from Japan's westernmost point, Yonaguni in Okinawa prefecture.
Emperor Naruhito's reign heralds the dawn of the Reiwa (beautiful harmony) epoch, and the first of his formal accession rituals will begin at 10.30am today.
Thousands braved the rain at Tokyo's Shibuya Crossing last night to count down to the start of the new era.
Speaking before the outgoing royal couple yesterday, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pledged: "Going forward, I will devote my 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."
Tributes poured in from world leaders. US President Donald Trump, noting the strength of his country's alliance with Japan, 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 US attaches to its close relationship with Japan."
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang recalled Emperor Akihito's historic visit to Beijing in 1992, saying he has made positive contributions to Sino-Japanese relations. He noted: "China-Japan relations have come back to the right track and taken on the positive momentum of development."
In a letter to Emperor Akihito, South Korean President Moon Jae-in expressed his gratitude for his contributions to bilateral ties and for stressing the value of peace, as did Russian President Vladimir Putin, who expressed wishes for the Emperor's good health, peace of mind and longevity.
Emperor Akihito is now Emperor Emeritus Akihito, and his wife, Empress Emerita Michiko. As Emperor Emeritus, he is barred from taking on any official duties.
Light rain and gloomy weather yesterday did not deter well-wishers from converging outside the Imperial Palace, as ceremonies were held behind closed doors. Many had travelled from beyond Tokyo, making use of the special 10-day Golden Week holidays to visit the capital.
Mr Naoomi Kuroshima, 64, from Hokkaido, told Reuters he had come to the Imperial Palace to "pay my last respects, to say my 'thank you'".
Others were more ambivalent about the imperial handover. Undergraduate Airi Sugimoto, 20, told The Straits Times she found the imperial institution to be far removed from the concerns of everyday life.
Royal couple to pursue their hobbies in retirement
TOKYO • Freed from official duties, the retired royal couple, as Emperor Emeritus Akihito and Empress Emerita Michiko, intend to spend their days pursuing personal hobbies.
While they will continue to live at the Imperial Palace for the time being, they will move to the Takanawa Imperial Residence before eventually settling down at Togu Palace on the Akasaka Estate in Tokyo after renovation works are completed.
Imperial Household Agency officials told Kyodo News that in retirement, the royal couple will continue to pray for the country and people, as they spend time on their personal pursuits such as listening to music and reading.
The monarch is a keen marine biologist who is one of the world's top authorities on the goby fish. He published a seminal paper - Some Morphological Characters Considered To Be Important In Gobiid Phylogeny - in 1986. He will continue to visit the biological laboratory on the Imperial Palace grounds periodically to continue his research, the officials added.
Emperor Akihito's abdication rituals began on March 12, and included visits to shrines in Nara and Mie prefectures in central Japan, where he reported his impending abdication to the deities there.
He also paid his respects at his father's tomb in Hachioji in western Tokyo. The final part of the religious rituals began at 10am yesterday, when the Emperor, donning the traditional sokutai robes that only the monarch can wear, informed his imperial ancestors - including the legendary Sun Goddess Amaterasu - of his abdication.
Last night, the royal couple privately greeted current and former imperial family members, as well as palace courtiers and aides, at the Imperial Palace.
Emperor Akihito is the first to abdicate since Emperor Kokaku gave up the throne in 1817.
Abdications were common during the feudal shogunate era, but the Imperial Household Law of 1889 stated for the first time that succession can occur only when a reigning monarch dies.
This was to deter power struggles that could unsettle the rule of the monarch.
Emperor Akihito, who underwent prostate cancer surgery in 2003 and heart bypass surgery in 2012, has been in good health, but has suffered from age-related fatigue.
He stunned the country in August 2016 by giving a rare public address in which he hinted at his desire to step down as "the symbol of the State and of the unity of the People", because of his age.
His abdication was allowed only under a one-time law, but Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said yesterday that the process leading to abdication could serve as a guiding precedent in future.
President Halimah, PM Lee send best wishes
President Halimah Yacob and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong yesterday conveyed their best wishes to Japanese Emperor Akihito on his abdication from the throne.
"On behalf of the people of Singapore, I would like to convey my deep respect and appreciation to Your Majesty as you relinquish your position as Emperor of Japan today," Madam Halimah wrote in a letter to Emperor Akihito, said a statement from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
"Your tireless and selfless efforts in working for the people of Japan have become synonymous with the peace and stability of the Heisei period," said Madam Halimah, referring to the imperial era under the monarch's reign, which ended yesterday.
She said this was evidenced by the travels of Emperor Akihito and his wife, Empress Michiko, to all 47 prefectures of Japan over the past 30 years, in particular to disaster areas to provide comfort to those affected.
Madam Halimah also noted the Emperor's role in promoting Singapore-Japan ties which she said have developed dynamically, underpinned by regular political exchanges, robust economic links and deepening people-to-people ties.
Many in Singapore also fondly recall the first visit of Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko to Singapore as Crown Prince and Princess in 1970, she added. "We were honoured to welcome Your Majesties again in 1981 and 2006, the latter on a state visit in commemoration of the 40th anniversary of diplomatic relations between our two countries," said Madam Halimah.
She also pointed to the Emperor and Empress hosting Singapore's first state visit to Japan by then President S R Nathan in 2009, as well as then President Tony Tan Keng Yam's state visit on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of bilateral relations in 2016, as evidence of the strong relationship.
In his letter to Emperor Akihito, PM Lee congratulated the monarch and extended his best wishes. "The Heisei period will be remembered as an era of peace and stability for Japan. Japan dealt with novel economic situations, and adapted to a changing strategic and security environment," said PM Lee.
He added: "Your Majesty's compassion, devotion to your people, and unwavering commitment to peace inspired and guided the Japanese nation in responding to these challenges. "
PM Lee added that relations between Singapore and Japan had grown steadily over the years. "The pair of King Sago Palms planted at the Japanese Garden in Singapore, during Your Majesties' first visit as Crown Prince and Princess in 1970, are still flourishing today, and so too the friendship between our countries and peoples," said PM Lee.