TOKYO: Japanese Emperor Akihito, in his final remarks as his three-decade reign drew to a close on Tuesday, thanked the people for their support and expressed hope for a peaceful future.
Akihito, 85, the first Japanese monarch to abdicate in two centuries, has sought during his time on the throne to ease the painful memories of World War Two and reach out to ordinary people, including those marginalised in society.
The popular Akihito was the first monarch to take the Chrysanthemum Throne under a post-war constitution that defines the emperor as a symbol of the people without political power.
His father, Hirohito, in whose name Japanese troops fought World War Two, was considered a living deity until after Japan’s defeat in 1945, when he renounced his divinity.
“To the people who accepted and supported me as a symbol, I express my heartfelt thanks,” Akihito, wearing a Western-style morning coat, said at a brief abdication ceremony in the Imperial Palace’s Matsu no ma, or Hall of Pine.
“Together with the empress, I hope from my heart that the new Reiwa era that begins tomorrow will be peaceful and fruitful, and pray for the peace and happiness of our country and the people of the world,” said a solemn Akihito, referring to the new imperial era, standing flanked by Empress Michiko, who wore a long white and grey dress.
About 300 people attended the ceremony and it was broadcast live on television.
Akihito, together with Michiko, his wife of 60 years and the first commoner to marry an imperial heir, carved out an active role as a symbol of reconciliation, peace and democracy.
Akihito, who has had treatment for prostate cancer and heart surgery, said in a televised address in 2016 that he feared his age would make it hard for him to carry out his duties fully.
Those at the abdication ceremony included Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Crown Prince Naruhito and Crown Princess Masako, as well as the heads of both houses of parliament and Supreme Court justices.
Imperial chamberlains carried state and privy seals into the hall along with two of Japan’s “Three Sacred Treasures” – a sword and a jewel – which together with a mirror are symbols of the throne. They are said to originate in ancient mythology.
“While keeping in our hearts the path that the emperor has walked, we will make utmost efforts to create a bright future for a proud Japan that is full of peace and hope,” Abe said ahead of the emperor’s remarks.
Earlier in the day, Akihito reported his abdication in sanctuaries inside the Imperial Palace, including one honouring the sun goddess Amaterasu Omikami, from whom mythology says the imperial line is descended, and two others for departed emperors and Shinto gods.
Video aired on NHK public television showed Akihito, wearing a dark orange traditional robe and black headdress, walking slowly into the first sanctuary as a courtier in a white robe walked behind holding the train and another carried a sword. Crown Prince Naruhito conducted a similar ceremony, NHK said.
Onlookers including foreign tourists gathered outside the Imperial Palace, a 115-hectare compound in the heart of Tokyo protected by a moat and walls, that is home to the emperor and empress. Security is tight with several thousand police officers mobilised in the capital, media has reported.
“I think the emperor is loved by the people. His image is one of encouraging the people, such as after disasters, and being close to the people,” said Morio Miyamoto, 48.
“I hope the next emperor will, like the Heisei emperor, be close to the people in the same way,” he said.
Not everyone was excited by the imperial changeover.
“It’s a normal day. That kind of political stuff is irrelevant to us ordinary people,” said Masato Saito, a 40-year-old construction worker.
“As long as they make our lives easy to live, that’s all I care.”
US President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania offered their “heartfelt appreciation” to the royal pair in a statement.
Naruhito, 59, will inherit the throne in separate ceremonies on Wednesday. Naruhito, who studied at Oxford, is likely to continue an active role and together with his Harvard-educated wife, Masako, give the monarchy a cosmopolitan tinge.
Tuesday marks the last day of the Heisei imperial era, which began on Jan 8, 1989, after Akihito inherited the throne. The era saw economic stagnation, natural disasters and rapid technological change.
Akihito officially remains emperor until midnight, when the new Reiwa era, meaning “beautiful harmony”, begins.
Japanese traditionally refer to the date by the era name, or “gengo”, a system originally imported from China, on documents, calendars and coins but many people also use the Western calendar.