Reiwa: A new emperor and a new era in Japan

Japan’s Emperor Akihito is set to abdicate on April 30, paving the way for a new era.

Seimon Ishibashi Bridge which leads to the main gate of the Imperial Palace in Tokyo, a most popular tourist attraction. Photo: Leesan


From April 27 until May 6 this year, the Japanese are going to enjoy their longest Golden Week holiday – 10 days instead of the usual seven.

This is because Emperor Akihito, the 125th emperor of Japan, will abdicate on April 30 to make way for his son Naruhito’s accension. This will mark the start of a new era for the country.

It also means that whoever is visiting Japan during this time will witness a most historic event with plenty of celebrations. However, visitors will also probably have to pay even more for their holiday as this peak period will be now be considered “super, super peak”!

Emperor Akihito’s decision to abdicate in his 28th year on the throne is unprecedented in Japan’s 2,600 years of history.

According to folklore, the first Emperor Jimmu founded Japan in 660BC and he was the descendant of the sun-goddess Amaterasu. But The Chronicles of Japan (Nihon Shoki), which is the second oldest record of classic Japanese history, states Emperor Sujin, the 10th emperor, as the earliest. The previous nine are seldom perceived as more mythical than historical.

The monarchy has gone through many ups and downs. Three emperors were overthrown and during the Heian period (794 to 1185), the military gained much power over the royal court.

By 1603, the Tokugawa shogunate had taken over and ruled Japan under the Edo period until 1868. The throne almost became irrelevant with the 70th to the 121st emperors being mere puppets with symbolic authority.

It was during the Meiji Restoration that the monarchy regained its powers and god-like status when Emperor Meiji enacted the Constitution of the Empire of Japan (Dai-Nippon Teikoku Kenpo) in 1889 which lasted until the end of World War II.

All that changed again when on Sept 2, 1945, Japan surrendered to the Allied Forces. On the morning of Sept 27, Emperor Hirohito (the father of Akihito) paid a visit to the US Embassy in Tokyo and held a 35-minute discussion with Douglas MacArthur, the US five-star general and the supreme commander for the Allied Powers in Japan.

Hirohito was 44 years old then and had been emperor for 20 years. His throne and the entire imperial system of government were on the line. After all, Japan’s war of aggression was done in his name and there was intense debate as to whether he should be held responsible for war crimes.

But the tide turned in his favour after that historic meeting. MacArthur insisted Hirohito remain as emperor and maintain the imperial system. He had been persuaded to see the emperor as the symbol of the state that united the Japanese people. By keeping and protecting the emperor, MacArthur realised it would make it easier for the Japanese to accept the occupation of their country by the Allied Powers.

But it was not entirely status quo. Hirohito had to renounce the claim that the emperor was an arahitogami or divinity in human form. He had to issue a “Declaration of Humanity” and proclaim himself as human and not a god.

Under the new Constitution shaped by the US, the emperor was no longer an imperial sovereign but a constitutional monarch with no powers in government matters.

The amended Constitution, however, did not allow abdication and excluded females from the succession as well as descendants from other branches of the Imperial Family lineage.


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