On April 30, 2019, Japan’s 85-year-old Emperor Akihito steps down from the throne, becoming the first Japanese monarch to abdicate in over 200 years.
Akihito was born on December 23, 1933, the eldest son of Emperor Hirohito, who had ruled Japan since 1926. Akihito was born two years after the Japanese invasion of Manchuria, the precursor to imperial Japan’s involvement in World War II. After World War II, as part of a sweeping set of reforms, the country adopted a new Western-style constitution, and the monarchy became purely symbolic (such as in England). Nevertheless, Akihito ascended to the throne after his father’s death in 1989.
While he had no political power, Akihito became an immensely popular figure in Japan. Unlike his father, who rarely appeared before the public, Akihito worked to move the imperial family “closer to the people.” He and his wife, Empress Michiko, made official visits to 18 countries and to all 47 Japanese Prefectures. He offered comfort after earthquakes, tsunamis and other tragedies, such as the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in 2011. A staunch pacifist, he repeatedly expressed remorse for Japan’s actions during World War II.
Citing poor health, the emperor announced his desire to step down in 2016. No emperor had abdicated since 1817. He was succeeded by his eldest son, Crown Prince Naruhito, on April 30, 2019. A new Japanese imperial era, Reiwa, was officially established.