In 2019, Japan will be witness to something that hasn’t happened in over two hundred years — Emperor Akihito will officially abdicate, making way for his son Crown Prince Naruhito to become Emperor. To many, the abdication and impending end of the Heisei (平成) era is bringing up emotions of nostalgia and apprehensions for the future. People are looking back on the defining moments of the era, both the inspired and the devastating, as well as praising Akihito for his zeal towards his duties as the symbol of Japan.

(JP) Link: Let’s Review "Heisei" Events in Pictures


Abdication isn’t uncommon in Japanese history. Many emperors in pre-modern Japan were forced to abdicate due to sickness or political turmoil. However, Akihito’s abdication will be a seizen tai-i (生前退位) or "living abdication." Since 1889, an emperor has to reign until his death — then, and only then, can an heir ascend the throne. Akihito’s abdication is especially rare in that he is willingly giving up power in favor of his son.

So how did this "living abdication" come about? Not easily, and not without heated debate.

Akihito's Long Road to Abdication

It was a turbulent road for Emperor Akihito to secure his abdication, mostly due to the absence of legislature allowing a living emperor to abdicate.

Despite his status as Emperor, and therefore the living embodiment of Japan, Akihito isn’t free to act on his own accord. He can’t just up and retire to the countryside. The act of abdication involves ceremonies and rituals honoring the imperial family and the people as they ease into a new reign.

Officials close to the Emperor revealed that the emperor had been hinting at abdication for years, with 2010 being the earliest recorded date of abdication talks. In 2016 NHK aired a rare televised video message Akihito recorded for the people. Akihito’s decision to make a public address can be construed as a carefully calculated move; he forced the government to get involved by appealing to the people. With media outlets jumping on the news, both abroad and national, the government had no choice but to come up with a way to allow the emperor to abdicate.

Emperor Akihito’s public address in August 2016, where he alludes to his desire to abdicate due to his age and health. One could say his decision to broadcast this message to the public was a shrewd way of forcing the government to take him seriously without actually calling them out.

As mentioned above, Akihito will be the first living Emperor to abdicate in over two hundred years. The last Emperor to do so was Emperor Kokaku (光格; Kokaku). He ruled from 1779-1817 and stepped down as Emperor to make way for his only living son. Emperors who abdicate become joko (上皇), or retired emperor, and the empress becomes a retired empress, joko-gou (上皇后). Even as a joko, Kokaku still exerted some power behind the throne, and many fear that this may happen with Akihito. Many have also voiced concerns that "coexistence of an emperor with a former emperor may...weaken the unity of the position’s symbolic nature and authority" (Hidehiko). However, there doesn’t seem to be any indication that Akihito intends to act behind the scenes; he seems to be fully withdrawing from imperial duties.

The Imperial Household Law

The imperial family is fairly restricted in their movements due to the Imperial Household Law (皇室典範; koushitsu tenpan). First established in 1889, the Imperial Household Law governs the issues of succession, marriage, regency, and other administrative matters.

When it became clear Akihito was serious in his wish to abdicate, a troubling question needed answering: should the abdication be a one-time thing specific to Emperor Akihito, or should it be codified into law for future Emperors wishing to abdicate? It fell to the Imperial Household Council (皇室会議; koushitsu kaigi) to make that decision. Headed by Prime Minister Abe and consisting of Diet and House members, the council convened to discuss how to address the abdication issue.

Inside the Imperial Abdication Panel: A Legal and Political Balancing Act
In the wake of a rare televised address in which Emperor Akihito obliquely conveyed a desire to step down, Prime Minister Abe Shinzō formed a six-member advisory panel to hammer out a legislative solution, given the lack of provision for abdication under current Japanese law. In this exclusive interview, Mikuriya Takashi, the panel’s acting chair, sheds light on the process that culminated in a recommendation for ad hoc legislation permitting abdication on this occasion only.

One article in particular, Article 4, has been the crux of the debate for abdication. Article 4 states that a new heir will ascend to the throne only after the Emperor’s death. No exceptions. Past discussions of Article 4 have been invariably tangled in politics and war. The Imperial Household Law went into effect the same day as the Meiji Constitution in 1889. Political motives and fear of the Meiji emperor’s power severely curved the potential of Article 4 at that time. When the Law was revised again in 1947, Emperor Hirohito’s position in relation to war responsibility came into conflict with the draftees’ intentions, and Article 4 was left alone despite heated discussions. Article 4 remains unchanged since the Meiji era, and many say that’s not a good thing.

In a September 2018 Huffpost Japan interview, historian Kazuto Hongo of Tokyo University talked about imperial abdication and the legislature:


However, in modern Japanese law, the Imperial Household Law is strongly effective. Everyone understands that Emperor Akihito is concerned about his health and desires to abdicate, but there are inadequate laws in place that don’t allow the emperor to abdicate. How to deal with the Imperial Household Law was a difficulty, but it was eventually decided to respond with the special legislation.

(JP) Link: How Should We Face the "Joko" for the First Time in 200 Years? We Ask Professor Hongo of Tokyo University Before the Abdication

200年ぶりの「上皇」とどう向き合うべきなのか? 生前退位を前に東大・本郷教授に聞く

In a survey conducted by Kyodo News in May 2017, a large majority supported a revision to constitutional law allowing future emperors to abdicate, with a clear opposition to the government’s idea of an ad hoc abdication law applicable only for Akihito. Nowhere in this Law has there been a provision made for living emperors to abdicate — until May 19, 2017 when the council announced that it would send a bill to the Diet for consideration. Much to the public’s dismay, it was an ad hoc provision solely for Akihito, and the Diet passed the bill in June 2017.

Aside from the abdication, another issue needs to be handled with as much delicacy as the abdication, and that is the selection of a new era name.

The Pre-Modern History of Era Names

Ancient Japan adopted many things from China — kanji, Buddhism, and the era name system, or gengo (元号; gengou). A gengo is a name given to a specific time period, usually an emperor’s reign. There were many false starts when this system was first implemented, with some emperors failing to reinstate it after a previous emperor’s death, leaving some time periods in Japanese history officially unnamed. Finally, in 701, the gengo became part of the Japanese calendar, and the succession of gengo has gone uninterrupted ever since.

For a long time, it wasn’t the rule to pair one emperor with one gengo, unlike in China. In pre-Meiji Restoration Japan, major events like natural disasters prompted the assignation of a new gengo. Sometimes two emperors would share a single gengo. Emperor Kokaku, the last emperor to abdicate prior to Akihito, reigned under five different gengo.

Emperor Kokaku
Emperor Kokaku was the last emperor to abdicate in favor of a successor. After his abdication, Emperor Kokaku traveled to the Sento Imperial Palace in Kyoto to live out his remaining days as a joko (上皇; *joukou*). (Source: Wikipedia)

"One Reign, One Era"

The 1868 Meiji Restoration brought revolutionary changes to Japan’s calendar system. With the Meiji Emperor’s ascension came the establishment of issei ichigen (一世一元), or "one reign, one era." From then on, era names were subject to change only when an emperor’s reign came to an end. Other than some exceptions during the Heian period, gengo are typically made up of two kanji compounds taken from selected Japanese texts.

The Historical Background of How Japan Chooses Its Era Names
Japan counts years using a system of era names. The current era is Heisei, which began when Emperor Akihito succeeded his father in 1989. A new era will begin when his heir takes the throne. This article explains the historical background of the system and the procedures by which it is now implemented.

With the practice of issei ichigen, it became inevitable for an emperor to be automatically associated with a gengo. Indeed, emperors are posthumously named after the gengo of their reign. Emperor Hirohito, the current Emperor’s father, is also known as the Emperor Shōwa.

More Than Just a Name

A gengo is more than just a demarcation of time or an earmark in the long history of Japanese imperial reign. A gengo encapsulates an entire mood atmosphere, as well as any significant events that irrevocably changed the nation. It’s similar to how some Americans reminisce about the early 2000s and the ‘90s.

When asked to summarize the Heisei era in one word, Professor Hongou had this to say:


I can’t say in a single word it was an era of “confusion.” When people hear “Showa” [the era name before Heisei], images of “expansion” and “rapid economic growth” come to mind, and as with “Showa literature”, the “Showa—” prefix was used in various places/ways. However, “Heisei” wasn’t used like that very much.

The Potential of Political and Societal Upheaval

Despite the public’s support for the Emperor’s abdication, the political world had other things to say about it. The timing of Akihito’s abdication couldn’t have been more upsetting, depending on your viewpoint. The abdication comes at a time when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is reinforcing his rhetoric for constitutional reform, and the ascension of the new Emperor coupled with the establishment of a new era name will delay his plans, something his opponents will no doubt take advantage of.

Concerns for the widespread social effect have also played a factor in determining the date for Akihito’s abdication. Japan is known for its numerous national holidays, notably Golden Week. How to best accommodate the Emperor’s abdication and Naruhito’s ascension without coinciding with notable holidays? Taking consideration of Akihito’s wishes and those of the people, the date of April 30 was finally selected.

The abdication has an economic impact as well. Japan still uses era names in daily life. Everything from daily planners, court documents, guidebooks, calendars — they all use the gengo simultaneously with the Western calendar system. Until the new gengo is revealed in April before the abdication, publishers and companies alike will have to wait.

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Akihito’s abdication will take place on April 30, 2019, bookended by ceremonies and ritual observances meant to ease the transition between old and new. Many will remember him as the "traveling emperor," one who visited disaster-struck areas and comforted the people. As for the Heisei era, many will know it as a time of great devastation and great renewal. Hopefully the new "gengo" will reflect hope for the future.


Hidehiko, Kasahara. "The Compromise and Contradictions in Emperor Akihito's Abdication Legislation.", April 18, 2017. Accessed Jan 6 2019.