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Japan's Emperor Akihito Abdicates The Chrysanthemum Throne


History is being made in Japan today. The emperor has abdicated, ending his three-decade reign and breaking a long tradition. Emperor Akihito is the first emperor to step down in more than 200 years. The 85-year-old is also Japan's first monarch to ascend the throne under a U.S.-drafted constitution that makes him a symbolic figure without political power. Japan marked the end of Akihito's reign with a lot of pageantry and deep reflection. And NPR's Anthony Kuhn has been covering it in Tokyo. Hi, Anthony.


GREENE: So what does it feel like to see an emperor step down in Japan?

KUHN: Well, the day started on a religious note, and the emperor first went to a shrine inside the Imperial Palace to communicate with the Shinto gods, to tell them he was stepping down. Then in the afternoon, the action moved to a state room in the palace, and there he gave a short speech in which he thanked people for accepting and supporting him in his role as symbol of the state. So he's saying, OK, I'm a modern constitutional monarch, I don't have any political powers, but I'm going to carve out a new role comforting people after disasters and praying for world peace, and that's what he did.

GREENE: So he was the first emperor to ascend the throne in the post-war era? I mean, this was in 1989. I mean, did he define some sort of more modern role for emperors in general?

KUHN: Well, for Japanese emperors, he certainly did. And a big part of this was saying that, you know, when an emperor gets old, they should be able to retire. The problem is, because he doesn't have any political powers, he doesn't get to make any rules; he doesn't get to even suggest that they be changed. So basically, the Parliament said, OK, we're going to give you a one-off exemption so that you can retire.

But he did other things that were new. He tried very hard to heal the scars of war, expressing contrition and regret for what Japan did during the war. He also did things like - he married a commoner, a woman from a Roman Catholic background. And he indicated that he wanted to be cremated, instead of buried in a royal mausoleum, all of which break with hundreds of years of royal tradition.

GREENE: So what happens now? Who becomes emperor?

KUHN: His eldest son, Naruhito, will ascend the throne tomorrow. And there are going to be ceremonies and celebrations and processions and banquets, which will stretch on into October and into next year. And President Trump will be the first head of state to visit him next month.

GREENE: Anthony, I know we're talking about a modern Japan and things that this emperor has done to bring Japan more into the modern era. But we hear women from the imperial family are not going to be allowed into some of these enthronement ceremonies. Why is that?

KUHN: That's right. There's a part of tomorrow's ascension ceremony where not even female members of the royal family will be allowed. And this is something that people look at and say, you know, if anything needs to be brought into the modern age, this is it, because if they don't change that, the royal family could possibly go extinct. They're down to only three male heirs left - they've got Akihito's brother, Naruhito's brother and Naruhito's young nephew. And under the current law, women are not allowed to inherit the throne, even though Japan has had eight empresses over centuries of long history.

GREENE: All right, NPR's Anthony Kuhn on a pretty significant day in Japan. He's reporting from Tokyo. Anthony, thanks a lot.

KUHN: You're welcome, David.

(SOUNDBITE OF KETA RA'S "YOGUA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.