Japan's Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko wave to well-wishers as Emperor Akihito takes part in a series of rituals ahead of his abdication. Photo: AFP/Kazuhiro Nogi

“He served with his heart,” said Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, in a short but solemn ceremony announcing the abdication of Emperor Akihito on Tuesday afternoon.

The austere ceremony took place in the Imperial Palace’s elegant Pine Chamber, known for its gleaming, highly polished wood floor. About 300 dignitaries, led by Abe, and members of the Imperial family attended.

Chamberlains brought in the two privy seals and two of the three sacred treasures, a sword and a jewel, and placed them before Akihito and Empress Michiko. Those items, plus a sacred mirror, will be presented to the new emperor, symbolizing his lawful ascension.

In his last public remarks as emperor, Akihito, 85, said he was grateful, “that as ‘a symbol of state,’ I was able to serve the people with love and respect.”

Then the party left the room. The entire ceremony took about 15 minutes. The enthronement of Akihito’s son, Emperor Naruhito, 59, takes place at 10:30 am on Wednesday.

Here are 10 things to know about Japan’s imperial institution.

Why is Akihito abdicating?

In 2016, he expressed a desire to retire, saying he was getting too old to carry out his duties as he would like. After politicians procrastinated, he delivered a televised address directly to the people. Nowhere did the emperor ask for parliament to pass a law allowing him to abdicate as that might have been construed as interfering in politics. Nevertheless, everyone heard the message.

Abe guided a 2017 bill through parliament to permit the abdication, but emphasized that it was a one-off. Presumably, any future monarch seeking to abdicate would need a separate law.

What are the emperor’s duties?

The constitution, written by American occupiers in 1947, makes clear the emperor has a role but does not rule. It describes the emperor as a “symbol of the state”, not “head of state”. Nor does it spell out his duties. As the second emperor to reign since World War II – he ascended the throne in 1989 – Akihito’s most important legacy was to flesh out the imperial role within the confines of the constitution.

It is a tight box. The emperor opens parliament, receives foreign ambassadors – who ride to the palace in an open, horse-drawn carriage – makes state visits and receives visiting foreign heads-of-state. That’s it.

However, Akihito also shaped a new role – offering face-to-face comfort to victims of Japan’s many natural disasters. Much commentary assessing Akihito’ legacy concentrates on this, with numerous pictures of him and his consort visiting evacuation centers.

How did the Imperial system survive?

At the end of World War II, every American ally, especially the United Kingdom, wanted to try Hirohito as a war criminal. One man differed: US General Douglas MacArthur.

MacArthur, victor and proconsul, believed that trying or otherwise humiliating the emperor could ignite bloody resistance – so better to co-opt the royals. Hirohito, who had overseen the Pacific War, was more than willing to oblige.

However, as part of his democratic reforms, MacArthur abolished the aristocracy. This would have future repercussions as Japan sought to find imperial consorts from among a diminishing field of prospects.

Why is the throne men-only?

While lawyers working for MacArthur struggled to define the role of the emperor in the new Japan, they did nothing about opening the throne to empresses. That was odd. The Americans emancipated Japanese women in other fields including membership of parliament and equality in marriage, but maintained a law limiting the throne to men.

Relaxing this ban remains strongly opposed in Japan, where a powerful conservative lobby wants the Imperial family to remain a model for a paternalistic society.

Is the emperor a liberal?

As a teenager in the aftermath of World War II, Akihito was tutored by American Elizabeth Vining who, it is believed, inculcated many Western liberal values. Her 1952 memoir Windows for the Crown Prince encapsulated her effort to broaden the crown prince’s horizons.

That situation generated an irony. It irks many Japanese conservatives in Japan that the institution they revere is headed by a liberal. And Naruhito seems to share his father’s world view.

What happens next?

No women – not even Naruhito’s wife – are permitted to attend Wednesday’s enthronement ritual of receiving the sacred regalia, the sword and mirror. However, the one female in Abe’s cabinet, Satsuki Katayama, will join her colleagues and become the first woman to attend.

The general public will finally see the new emperor and empress in person on May 4, when they appear on the balcony of the Imperial Palace. The crush of people is expected to be enormous.

Meanwhile, the Japanese are enjoying a 10-day holiday.

What do Japanese call their emperor?

The Japanese term is Tenno Haike – derived from a Chinese character that translates roughly into “Son of Heaven.” Japan’s top royal is the only one in today’s world to use the English term “emperor” – even though Japan’s empire, which once stretched from Burma to Manchuria to New Guinea, imploded in 1945.

As per tradition, the Emperor Akihito will become known as the Heisei (“Peace Everywhere”) emperor based on his era. Naruhito will be known as the Reiwa (“Beautiful Harmony”) emperor, after the new era.

What will Akihito do in retirement?

Probably what other 85-year old retirees do. There will be no more state papers to read, no more foreign ambassadors to receive, no more visits to disaster areas.

One thing he will likely not become is a shadow emperor. At one time emperors retired and then became the real power behind whoever was on the throne at the time – but no longer. Meanwhile, some Western press have offered Akihito an unofficial new moniker: “Emperor Emeritus.”

In what ways was Akihito a pioneer?

He was the first emperor to marry a commoner, the first to deliver a televised address to the people and the first in 200 years to abdicate.

He will also be a pioneer when he joins his ancestors. He is the first emperor to say he wanted to be cremated – as 90% of Japanese commoners are.

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