Japan emperor to abdicate on April 30, 2019

TOKYKO - Japan's Emperor Akihito will step down on April 30, 2019, the prime minister announced Friday, the first retirement in more than two centuries in the imperial family believed to be the world's oldest.

Shinzo Abe said he was "deeply moved" at the "smooth decision" taken after a special meeting of the Imperial Council to decide on the date for the popular 83-year-old to step down for health reasons.

"The government will make utmost efforts to ensure that the Japanese people can celebrate the emperor's abdication and the succession of the crown prince," added Abe.

Akihito's eldest son, 57-year-old Crown Prince Naruhito, is expected to ascend the Chrysanthemum Throne the next day.

The emperor shocked the country last year when he signalled his desire to take a back seat after nearly three decades, citing his age and health problems.

There have been abdications in Japan's long imperial history dating back more than 2,600 years but the last one was more than two centuries ago.

Akihito is the 125th person to sit on the Chrysanthemum Throne since Emperor Jimmu, said to be a descendant of the legendary sun goddess Amaterasu.

Emperors have played a crucial role in the country's native Shinto religion, conducting various annual rites and prayers for the prosperity of the nation.

FEMALE SUCCESSION

There is no republican movement to speak of in Japan and the emperor and the royal family enjoy the admiration of the vast majority of the country.

But Akihito's unexpected move presented a challenge since there was no law to deal with an emperor retiring from what is usually a job for life - and it reignited debate about allowing women to ascend the traditionally male-only throne.

In June, the parliament passed a one-off rule allowing the ageing emperor to step down.

The abdication must take place within three years and applies only to Akihito, who has been treated for prostrate cancer and has also had heart surgery.

Some worried that changing the rule to allow any emperor to abdicate could put Japan's future monarchs at risk of being subject to political manipulation.

The status of the emperor is sensitive in Japan given its 20th century history of war waged in the name of Akihito's father Hirohito, who died in 1989.

Akihito was born in 1933 just as Japan was embarking on its militaristic sweep across Asia, and was 11 when the war ended in defeat.

His father was allowed to remain on the throne after Japan's defeat, but his status was downgraded from semi-divine sovereign to a figurehead with no political power.

Akihito embraced the role and tried to use it to help heal the scars of the war while remoulding one of the world's oldest monarchies for a democratic age.

Even before he assumed the throne, Akihito broke with tradition when he married the daughter of a wealthy flour magnate in 1959, becoming the first imperial heir to wed a commoner.

The emperor and his wife Empress Michiko are seen as being the more accessible face of a monarchy that largely remains in the shadows, unlike the British royals.

Akihito is barred from commenting on politics, but he has over the years hinted at his own anti-nationalist views.

Speaking at a memorial marking the 70th anniversary of Japan's surrender, Akihito expressed "deep remorse" for the country's actions in World War II.

The looming abdication has reignited concerns about a potential succession crisis. There are no more eligible male heirs after the 11-year-old son of Crown Prince Naruhito's younger brother Akishino.

Japan's centuries-old succession would be broken if that son, Hisahito, does not have a male child.

In response, Japan's parliament has called for a debate on giving women a bigger role in the male-dominated monarchy.

The idea - including the possibility of letting women ascend the throne - is popular with ordinary Japanese, but it is vehemently opposed by traditionalists.

Female imperial family members lose their royal status upon marriage to a commoner, a point highlighted by the engagement of one of Akihito's granddaughters, Princess Mako, to her college sweetheart.

Japan's Princess Mako to be engaged to university classmate

  • The 25-year-old eldest daughter of Prince Akishino and his wife, Kiko, and the first grandchild of the Emperor and Empress, Princess Mako is engaged to Kei Komuro, 25, a former fellow student at the International Christian University.
  • his will be the first engagement in 12 years of a naishinno princess - a daughter or granddaughter of the Emperor - since the engagement of the Emperor and Empress' daughter, Sayako Kuroda. It will also be the first time a female Imperial family member has become engaged in three years, since the wedding of Noriko Senge, the second daughter of the late Prince Takamado.
  • Following the announcement of the unofficial engagement, there will be a traditional rite of betrothal called Nosai no Gi, the equivalent of the ceremony traditionally held to exchange betrothal gifts among the general public.
  • This will be followed by other ceremonies held shortly before the wedding ceremony, including a ceremony in which Princess Mako and Komuro's marriage is reported to the Imperial ancestors and gods at three palaces within the Imperial Palace grounds, and Choken no Gi, in which the princess will bid farewell to the Emperor and Empress.
  • The princess was born in October 1991, making her the first grandchild of the Emperor and Empress. After entering Gakushuin Primary School in 1998, she went on to Gakushuin Girls' Junior and Senior High School. In 2010, she enrolled at the ICU College of Liberal Arts, where she majored in art and cultural heritage.
  • She studied at the University of Edinburgh in 2012, and after her graduation from ICU in 2014 participated in the University of Leicester's postgraduate programme to study museology for about a year. She is now an affiliate researcher at the University Museum of the University of Tokyo.
  • Her prospective fiance, Kei Komuro, is studying business law at Hitotsubashi University's graduate school while also working at a law firm in Tokyo.
  • Japan's Princess Mako (left) and Princess Kako, daughters of Prince Akishino and his wife Princess Kiko appear before well-wishers as they celebrate Emperor Akihito's 83rd birthday at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo, Japan, December 23, 2016.
  • Japan's Prince Akishino (right), his wife Princess Kiko (second right) and their daughters Princess Mako (second left) and Princess Kako send off Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko boarding a special flight for their visit to Vietnam and Thailand, at Haneda Airport in Tokyo, Japan February 28, 2017.