Japan’s much-loved Emperor Akihito will stand down on April 30, 2019, becoming the first Japanese monarch to abdicate his post in two centuries.
The decision was made at a meeting of the Imperial House Council and announced by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Friday.
Crown Prince Naruhito, who has already assumed some of his father’s duties, will take on the role on May 1, 2019, becoming the 126th Emperor to ascend to Japan’s Chrysanthemum Throne.
In August 2016, Akihito gave a rare televised address, where he said his age and fitness level could make it “difficult” to carry out his duties in the future, a plea many took as a request to step aside.
Following his speech, the Japanese parliament in June passed into law a historic bill to allow 83-year-old Akihito to abdicate the throne if he chose.
“When I consider that my fitness level is gradually declining, I am worried that it may become difficult for me to carry out my duties as the symbol of the State with my whole being as I have done until now,” he said in 2016, only the third time a Japanese emperor has addressed his people since 1945.
Emperor Hirohito announced by radio that Japan lost World War II and Akihito, his son, addressed the nation on TV after the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011.
The emperor is a ceremonial but revered figure in Japan’s constitutional monarchy. It is currently the oldest hereditary monarchy in the world, dating back fourteen centuries. Akihito himself is a direct descendent of Japan’s first emperor Jimmu, believed to reign around 660 BC.
The last emperor to abdicate was Emperor Kokaku in 1817 in the later part of the Edo Period. In general, Japan’s monarch is not allowed to step down under Japan’s legal framework.
But Akihito, who was born in December 1933, had been suffering health problems in recent years, including heart surgery and treatment for cancer, which he addressed in his 2016 speech.
“I started to think about the pending future, how I should conduct myself should it become difficult for me to carry out my heavy duties in the way I have been doing, and what would be best for the country, for the people, and also for the Imperial Family members who will follow after me,” he said.
Akihito’s father was the wartime Emperor Hirohito who presided over Japan’s aggression in the first half of the 20th Century.
Akihito has repeatedly expressed remorse for his country’s actions before and during World War II, including during his visit to China in 1992, the first ever by a Japanese monarch, although he did not apologize.
“At odds with much Japanese behavior of recent years, ranging from prime ministerial visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, which enshrines war criminals among others, to whitewashing Japanese atrocities in school textbooks, Akihito has been expressing remorse and making gestures of repentance that convey Japan’s contrition regarding the nation’s regional rampage,” Jeff Kingston, director of Asian studies at Temple University Japan, wrote for CNN in 2016.
Akihito also broke more than 1,500 years of imperial tradition by choosing in 1959 to marry a commoner, Michiko Shoda.