Emperor Akihito: Japan’s former king who broke 200 years of tradition

Japan: Emperor Akihito holds ritual ahead of abdication ceremony

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The world is filled with royal dynasties, from Britain to Denmark, Spain to Morocco, Cambodia to Bhutan. Today, one of those families celebrates the birthday of their former emperor: Japan’s Akihito. The trailblazer was born on December 23, 1933, and will likely spend the day surrounded by those closest to him. But who exactly is Akihito? And why is he so important in Japan’s imperial history? Express.co.uk takes a look. 

Often hailed for his influential work presiding over the Heisei era – the term Heisei which describes the ability to create world peace — Akihito rose to power in 1989, succeeding his father to the Chrysanthemum Throne.

His reign was epitmoised by an overwhelming desire to bring his family closer to the people of Japan.

As part of his efforts, Akihito, who reigned as the 125th emperor of Japan, visited all 47 prefectures of Japan, and to many of the beautiful but often forgotten islands of his nation.

One of his most surprising legacies came when the statesman broke away with a 200-year-old tradition, to defy the protocol that had been put in place in Japan — resigning from office.

In 2019, at the age of 85, Akihito stood down from his post in an emotional ceremony which saw his son Naruhito take the throne, ushering in a new era for Japan.

While not uncommon for an emperor to abdicate the throne — more than half of Japan’s monarchs had vacated throughout Japanese history — Akihito’s decision was historic as nobody had done so since 1817, when Emperor Kokaku stood down. 

During his farewell speech he spoke of how his tenure had helped shape Japan’s history, while outlining his hopes for the next period for his nation.

He said: “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.

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“I sincerely thank the people who accepted and supported me in my role as the symbol of the State.

“I sincerely wish, together with the Empress, that the Reiwa era, which begins tomorrow, will be a stable and fruitful one, and I pray, with all my heart, for peace and happiness for all the people in Japan and around the world.”

Around 300 people were in attendance for the ceremony, including then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the former Japanese leader who was assassinated earlier this year.

Prior to Akihito’s speech, Mr Abe spoke of the emperor’s achievements, continuing: “We will keep in our minds the steps Your Majesty has taken to this point and continue to do our utmost to make Japan a country which is peaceful, full of hope, and one we can be proud of.

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“We sincerely hope for the long and healthy lives of Your Majesties the Emperor and Empress.”

Another big tradition Akihito broke with was in his marriage: he became the first member of the Japanese royal family to marry a commoner.

Until the 20th century, emperors ordinarily had a main wife and several concubines, all from noble families.

Akihito was the first leader to gain permission to marry a commoner, and soon fell in love with Michiko Shoda after meeting her on a tennis court.

They married in 1959 and went on to have three children.

Their eldest son, Naruhito, became emperor in 2019, and also married a commoner, the former diplomat Masako Owada.

When news broke that the history-making emperor, who was hugely popular with the people of Japan, was standing down, many took to describing their sadness at the decision.

Among them was resident Satomi Kitamura, who told CNN: “He became emperor when Japan was looking for a new national identity and I think his commitment to peace became symbolic of how Japan tried to be perceived in the world. I hope that will continue.”

Another to issue their “sadness” was bank worker Kenichiro Yasuda, adding: “He is getting older so I understand. It is good that his son is ready.”

There had been question marks and reports over whether Akihito would continue long term as a result of his ailing health, which had seen him endure a number of illnesses including suffering from pneumonia and having a heart bypass.

The rumours were laid to rest in August 2016, when making only the third televised address since 1945 to the Japanese people, Akihito announced his intentions to stand down.

He said: “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.”

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