With the issue of the Emperor’s abdication a settled fact, Japan’s Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, addressed a New Year press conference in Ise, central Japan, on January 4. He confirmed that the name of the new emperor would be disclosed on April 1. By choosing to deviate from tradition and deciding to abdicate, citing frail health, Emperor Akihito, paved the way for his son Naruhito to become emperor on 1 May 2019.

Abe’s interaction with the media on New Year’s day is a customary event for Prime Ministers after they pay a visit to Ise shrine, which is regarded as “the soul of Japan”. Ise shrine is dedicated to Amaterasu Omikami, the sun goddess of the Shinto religion. More than 1,500 rituals are carried out there each year to pray for the imperial family, as well as for world peace and a plentiful harvest.

Era names are important as they are needed to determine the particular year in the traditional Japanese calendar. The series of rituals associated with the succession issue demonstrates how traditions are respected despite modernization. The government is expected to approve an ordinance on the adoption of a new name for the era, which the present emperor will sign and then promulgate the ordinance. As both the public and private sectors require time to update their systems ahead of the start of a new era and make other adjustments, the government decided to announce the new name one month before the abdication takes effect. In his last New Year appearance while in office to greet the people, Emperor Akihito was in the palace balcony. He was greeted by a crowd of more than 150,000 people.

The new era will be the 248th in Japan. The same procedures followed in naming the Heisei era in 1989 shall be followed this time too. When the Showa era gave way to the Heisei era, the current Emperor promulgated the government ordinance on 7 January 1989 ~ the day of his enthronement ~ with the Heisei era officially beginning on 8 January. If this precedent is followed, the new era will begin on 2 May if the ordinance is promulgated on May 1, which means the Heisei era would encompass 1 May.

Indeed, the year 2019 will be a historic year for Japan. Known as the Year of the Boar in the Asian zodiac, it heralds a year of determination. For the record, the reign of the current Emperor is called Heisei, which translates to “achieving peace”. Heisei started on January 8, 1989, the day after Emperor Hirohito died and Akihito will be the first living emperor to give up the throne in two centuries since Emperor Kokaku stepped down in 1817. The current Emperor will be referred to as Jokoheika after he abdicates. While the current Empress will be referred to as Jokoheika, Prince Akishino will be referred to as Koshidenka and will be first in line to the throne. A new section to handle the affairs of the joko and the koshi will be established at the Imperial Household Agency.

Government ordinances are generally promulgated within a few days after Cabinet approval. The conservatives were in favour of postponing it, which the Cabinet Legislation Bureau concluded as “not appropriate”. However the Abe government felt that postponing the promulgation until it is signed by the new emperor could violate the constitutional ban on imperial involvement in politics, as it would mean that consideration is being shown towards the new emperor for procedures related to the change of era.

This year will also be marked by three important events. The year 2019 being designated as the first year of the new imperial era, there will be a host of other activities ~ unified local elections in April, Upper House elections in July, G-20 Summit and then Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD). A large number of foreign dignitaries are expected to attend the imperial accession to the throne. Government officials call it the “2019 Problem”.

An abdication ceremony will be held for the first time under the Constitution, which designates the Emperor as a symbol of the state. When Crown Prince Naruhito ascends the Chrysanthemum Throne on 1 May after the current Emperor Akihito officially steps down on 30 April, a series of rituals will be organised. When the present Emperor ascended the throne in November 1989, guests from 158 countries and regions had attended the ceremony. They included seven royals, 46 Presidents, and 11 Prime Ministers who gathered to celebrate the accession at the “Enthronement Ceremony”. At that time, a number of bilateral summits were held, including a meeting with Vice-Presidents and foreign ministers from 57 countries. So, this time around, when there will be droves of foreign dignitaries for the G-20 Summit, a series of summits are expected to be held.

The government is expected to designate 1 May, the day the Crown Prince takes over the throne, as the start of the new era and as a national holiday. The government is also expected to consider whether 23 December, the present Emperor’s birthday, should remain as a national holiday. Several aspects were taken into consideration in choosing the abdication date.

A ceremony marking the 30th anniversary of the death of Emperor Showa was held on 7 January this year, and the government accepted the views of the Imperial Household Agency that abdication after that ceremony would be appropriate.

Further, when the TICAD began in 1993, only five leaders attended the first summit but by June 2013, when it was held in Yokohama, 39 leaders from 51 participating countries attended. So, this time around, the MOFA has its hands full in making preparations. Arranging meeting dates with foreign governments, confirming accommodation, transport and security will be a daunting task.

The abdication is a one-off affair. The issue of permanency is left to future generations to determine. But by allowing the current Emperor to step down by passing the special law, a precedent could have been set for possible abdication later. That would require passing a permanent legislation to make that happen. That is not easy. But if it happens ever in future, Japan as a nation could find itself coexisting with a retired Emperor or Joko, a new Emperor and a new Imperial heir. That scenario is unthinkable in the foreseeable future, however. Whichever situation emerges in the future, the Emperor as the symbol of the nation shall continue to remain robust as has been all these centuries. The significance of the institution of the Emperor is too important for Japan and Japanese people as it is rooted in the nation’s history and culture. The Tenno may have renounced his semi-god divine status after the World War II but for the people of Japan it still remains hugely relevant.


(The writer is a Lok Sabha Research Fellow and can be reached at [email protected])