Japan’s emperor Akihito is preparing to become the country’s first monarch to abdicate in two centuries, a day before his eldest son takes his place as the new occupant of the chrysanthemum throne.
Akihito, who expressed a desire to abdicate in 2016, fearing his age would make it difficult for him to carry out public duties, will enter the Matsu no Ma (Hall of Pine) at the imperial palace early on Tuesday evening and relinquish his title in a short ceremony that will be broadcast live on TV.
Earlier the same day, the 85-year-old emperor, the first Japanese monarch to spend his entire reign stripped of political influence under the country’s postwar constitution, was due to report his abdication to his ancestors and the Shinto gods at sacred spots inside the imperial palace grounds in Tokyo.
They include the sun goddess Amaterasu Omikami, from whom, according to mythology, the 2,600-year imperial line is descended.
In the evening, he will end his reign with the symbolic return of the “three sacred treasures” – a sword, a mirror and a jewel – that will be brought into the room by imperial chamberlains.
Little is known about the regalia, which will remain inside boxes throughout the ceremony. The sword and mirror are said to be replicas, with the originals kept at Shinto shrines elsewhere in Japan.
Empress Michiko, Akihito’s successor crown prince Naruhito, and his wife and future empress crown princess Masako, will be among the 300 people attending the ceremony, along with the prime minister, Shinzo Abe, the heads of both houses of parliament and supreme court justices.
Abe will announce the abdication, followed by brief remarks from Akihito, whose 30-year reign – known as Heisei (achieving peace) – will officially come to an end at midnight on Tuesday.
Naruhito will ascend the throne on Wednesday morning in a similarly brief ceremony, during which he will “inherit” the imperial regalia before making his first public statement as emperor.
Female members of the imperial family will not be allowed to attend the ceremony, a tradition the government decided to retain despite criticism from sections of the public.
With his accession, the new imperial era, named Reiwa (beautiful harmony), will begin.
When he became emperor in 1989, Akihito said he would protect Japan’s postwar constitution, which stripped his father, the wartime monarch Hirohito and all future emperors of their divine status, turning them into symbolic figureheads.
Akihito, though, redefined the role of emperor, using his reign to repair ties with Japan’s wartime victims, including a historic visit to China in 1992.
Evocative images of his reign show him and Empress Michiko comforting people affected by natural disasters and reaching out to marginalised groups, including former leprosy patients who were incarcerated in state-run sanatoriums until the mid-1990s.
The 59-year-old Naruhito, who spent two years at Oxford and wrote his thesis on the history of transport on the Thames, and Masako, a Harvard-educated former career diplomat, will greet the public for the first as emperor and empress on Saturday.
They will not meet foreign heads of state and other dignitaries after Naruhito’s official enthronement ceremony in late October.
“I think the emperor is loved by the people. His image is one of encouraging the people, such as after disasters, and being close to the people,” said Morio Miyamoto, a Tokyo resident. “I hope the next emperor will, like the Heisei emperor, be close to the people in the same way.”
On Tuesday police stepped up security near the imperial palace, a sprawling site in the heart of Tokyo. Several thousand police officers were mobilised, with large crowds expected to brave rain forecast for Wednesday to celebrate Naruhito’s accession.
On Monday, police arrested a 56-year-old man who had allegedly entered the school attended by the emperor’s 12-year-old grandson, Prince Hisahito, and placed two knives on his desk.
Media reports said Kaoru Hasegawa is suspected of disguising himself as a repairman and entering the junior high school on Friday.
Hisahito, who will become second in line to the throne on Wednesday – and is Japan’s the last eligible male heir – was not at the school at the time of the incident.
The 1947 imperial household law does not allow women to become reigning empresses.