Emperor Akihito and his wife Michiko on April 18 visited the most important shrine in Japan, Ise Jingu, to pay their respects.
Under different circumstances this would seem a normal occurrence for the official head of the Shinto religion. However, in 2019 it was different. The visit was widely broadcast as one of the first rituals in the lead up to the Emperor’s abdication on April 30.
Emperor Akihito will be the first ruler to abdicate since 1817, and the first to do so in the modern era. He is the 125th ruler on the Chrysanthemum Throne.
Previously, emperors were known to have abdicated for many different reasons. Since the modern era, though, they have ruled for their lifetime.
From Heisei to Reiwa
This changed when news leaked in the summer of 2016 that Japan’s then-82-year old ceremonial head of state — who had had heart surgery and undergone treatment for prostate cancer — wished to relinquish the throne. Subsequently, he released a video message to the people of his realm, hinting at his intention of stepping down.
To deal with this unusual situation, the Prime Minister’s Cabinet enacted a one-time law to allow Akihito to abdicate, paving the way for the opening of a new era.
Unlike previous ages, this transition into a new era provides an upbeat chance for Japanese to celebrate the end of the Heisei era. Precisely because the Emperor will step down voluntarily just before the accession of his son, there is a feeling of anticipation compounded by a celebratory atmosphere. Perhaps intentionally, this historical moment falls during this year’s extended Golden Week holiday.
The rituals for this historic event have their roots in ancient texts on the origins of Japan. These texts record that the goddess Amaterasu Omikami sent her grandson from the heavenly realm down to earth. Ever since, their descendants, including the present emperor, have ruled on the Chrysanthemum Throne.
Rituals to Last Until Autumn
The proceedings themselves have adjusted to their times, even as the rites at the heart of the celebration continue a long Japanese tradition.
On the evening of April 30, Emperor Akihito will hold his last audience before representatives of the Japanese people in a ceremony within the walls of the Imperial Palace. The audience is predicted to last just 10 minutes. The rule of the Heisei Emperor who has reigned over Japan since 1989 will then be over.
The following morning, May 1, Akihito’s son Naruhito will inherit the throne and be invested with the imperial seals and regalia. This includes the “Three Sacred Treasures” — the sword, jewels, and mirror — which have been passed on through generations of emperors as symbols of imperial dignity bequeathed by the divinity and ancestor Amaterasu Omikami.
The ceremony will be attended by very few people, and the sacred treasures will be kept in the box even when they are passed on to the new Reiwa Emperor.
Later in the morning, the new emperor will issue a short address to the representatives of the Japanese people, including Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the heads of legislative and judiciary branches, and representatives of regional governments.
The statement is highly anticipated, as it will be first time Naruhito will give an address in his role as emperor. It is hoped that his words will give an idea of what kind of rule he will set out to have in his Reiwa era.
Naruhito will report to his ancestor, the divinity Amaterasu, in another ceremony held on May 8 at the Kashidokoro inside the Imperial Palace. For this event, he will bear the sacred sword and jewels, and wear elaborate robes with a color permitted to the emperor alone, thereby beginning the formal rituals of enthronement, which will continue in succession into the autumn.
Japanese people will have a chance to visit the Imperial Palace to greet the new emperor on May 4.
The world will have to wait until October 22, though, for the grand celebrations, when the Emperor will proclaim his accession to the throne to the people of Japan and the world. On this occasion, banquets with the heads of state from all over the world will take place, together with a much-awaited parade to greet the Japanese people.
Symbolically, another ritual, which is key to the succession of the new emperor, is a ceremony called the Daijosai. This is a rite which takes place only once during the imperial reign, at its beginning. In it for the first time as new emperor, Naruhito will offer the year’s harvest to Amaterasu Omikami and the other divinities of heaven and earth. The ritual is meant to symbolize the wish for fruitful harvests as well as protection of the Japanese people.
For more detailed coverage of the events taking place in autumn, make sure you check back in on the JAPAN Forward page for coverage of this special event, and join us in commemorating this historical moment.
Author: Arielle Busetto