Japan's Emperor Akihito Steps Down: A Life in Pictures

(Bloomberg) -- Japanese Emperor Akihito, 85, is ending his three-decade reign on April 30, voluntarily stepping down due to health concerns. It is the country’s first abdication of the Chrysanthemum Throne since 1817.

His 31-year imperial era — known as Heisei, which can be translated as “achieving peace” — comes to an end with a ceremony at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo. A day after the abdication, his son, Crown Prince Naruhito, 59, ascends the throne in ceremonies at the same location.

Akihito helped to modernize the world’s oldest hereditary monarchy by bringing the imperial family closer to the public. He and his wife, Empress Michiko, have taken on gentle public personas and were seen as helping the nation through catastrophic natural disasters with displays of compassion that included visits to evacuation centers to speak to survivors.

His landmark apologies for the wartime aggression launched in the name of his father, Hirohito, helped ease often fraught relations with neighbors China and South Korea, which bore heavy blows from Japan’s militarism. Akihito spoke in ordinary Japanese, rather than the formal grammar employed by his father, the last emperor regarded by prevailing custom to be a living deity.

Japan's Emperor Akihito Steps Down: A Life in Pictures

Akihito is an emperor of firsts. He was the first emperor to reign entirely under the U.S.-drafted pacifist constitution after World War II, the first to marry a commoner and, along with his wife, the first to raise his children at home.

The public reacted sympathetically when he made a rare televised address in 2016 telling of his intention to abdicate — citing his advanced age and poor health. The government then passed a special one-time law to allow for him to step down.

The emperor and empress have made official visits to 28 countries, according to the Imperial Household Agency. They have been at the forefront of relief efforts after major disasters, consoling victims and offering support to relief works. They have toured every part of Japan and made more than 500 visits to facilities for children, the elderly and people with disabilities.

new imperial era — Reiwa, meaning “auspicious calm” — begins under his son Naruhito on May 1. 

Japan's Emperor Akihito Steps Down: A Life in Pictures

At the start of 1945, Hirohito is a central part of the war effort, riding with the military and appearing at mass gatherings. But after Japan’s defeat, it all changes. Hirohito is received by General Douglas MacArthur, U.S. commander of the Japanese occupation, in September 1945 (bottom right). The image has been seen as symbolizing the U.S. general’s power as the head of the occupying force over the defeated country, and the emperor's new status as a mortal who could help MacArthur with his work.

Japan's Emperor Akihito Steps Down: A Life in Pictures

The 21-year-old Crown Prince Akihito gets better acquainted with his father over a game of Shogi, or Japanese chess, as Empress Naga looks on. Akihito grew up largely apart from his parents and after the war, there were new dynamics in the imperial family.

Japan's Emperor Akihito Steps Down: A Life in Pictures

Then-Prince Akihito is pictured at the ceremony where he was formally proclaimed successor to the Chrysanthemum Throne in Tokyo in November 1952.

Japan's Emperor Akihito Steps Down: A Life in Pictures

Crown Prince Akihito travels the world as a face of a new Japan. Here, he welcomes guests arriving at a reception in London in May 1953, along with Japanese Ambassador Shunichi Matsumoto. He was there to attend the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.

Japan's Emperor Akihito Steps Down: A Life in Pictures

Crown Prince Akihito and Crown Princess Michiko play tennis at the Tokyo Lawn Tennis Club. The emperor and empress met on the court and their whirlwind courtship helped to set off a tennis boom in Japan. 

Japan's Emperor Akihito Steps Down: A Life in Pictures

In 1959, Crown Prince Akihito marries Princess Michiko. Along with parades through the streets, they also had a formal moment with Emperor Hirohito and Empress Nagako at the Imperial Palace.

Japan's Emperor Akihito Steps Down: A Life in Pictures

Akihito and Michiko play greater roles in parenting, redefining the role of the imperial family. Here they’re pictured on a bicycle outing with their son Naruhito in Karuizawa in September 1965.

Japan's Emperor Akihito Steps Down: A Life in Pictures

Naruhito and Akihito look at Brazilian traditional artwork and crafts at Togu Palace in Tokyo in 1982.

Japan's Emperor Akihito Steps Down: A Life in Pictures

Like his father, Naruhito represents Japan during visits by foreign dignitaries. He sits with Britain's Prince Charles and his wife Princess Diana at the Shugakuin Imperial Villa in Kyoto in 1986.

Japan's Emperor Akihito Steps Down: A Life in Pictures

New Emperor Akihito makes formal comments during his enthronement ceremony at the Imperial Palace in 1990, several months after his father Hirohito’s death.

Japan's Emperor Akihito Steps Down: A Life in Pictures

South Korean President Roh Tae-woo is escorted by Akihito at a state dinner at the Imperial Palace in May 1990. During Roh’s visit, Akihito would express his “deepest regret” for the suffering the Korean people underwent, a landmark in contrition.

Japan's Emperor Akihito Steps Down: A Life in Pictures

In October 1992, Akihito becomes the first Japanese emperor to visit China, meeting Communist Party General Secretary Jiang Zemin in Beijing. Akihito expressed “deep sorrow” for the countries’ troubled past.

Japan's Emperor Akihito Steps Down: A Life in Pictures

Crown Prince Naruhito of Japan and his future wife Masako Owada, a former diplomat, appear in traditional Japanese costume prior to their wedding in 1993.

Japan's Emperor Akihito Steps Down: A Life in Pictures

Akihito keeps close ties with Britain’s monarchs. He walks between ranks of soldiers as he inspects a guard of honor at the start of his five-day U.K. state visit in 1998, where he met Queen Elizabeth.

Japan's Emperor Akihito Steps Down: A Life in Pictures

Akihito and Michiko visit survivors at shelters after a powerful earthquake and tsunami devastated Japan’s northeast coast in March 2011, leaving about 20,000 people dead or missing. The compassion of the emperor and empress was seen as helping a battered nation recover.

Japan's Emperor Akihito Steps Down: A Life in Pictures

Crown Prince Naruhito, Crown Princess Masako and their daughter Princess Aiko greet well-wishers at Shimoda Station in August 2018. Japanese law bars women from ascending the throne so Aiko cannot become empress. Naruhito’s younger brother is next in line for succession.

Japan's Emperor Akihito Steps Down: A Life in Pictures

Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko receive banzai cheers from Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, left, and others attending a ceremony commemorating the 30th anniversary of the emperor's reign at the National Theatre in Tokyo in February 2019.

Japan's Emperor Akihito Steps Down: A Life in Pictures

Yoshihide Suga, Japan's chief cabinet secretary, unveils the name of the next imperial era — “Reiwa” — at the prime minister's official residence a month before the ascension of Naruhito. On the streets of Tokyo, people scramble to collect copies of an extra edition of the Asahi Shimbun newspaper reporting on the announcement of the new name.

Japan's Emperor Akihito Steps Down: A Life in Pictures

In his final weeks in office, Emperor Akihito visits shrines central to the imperial family center. Here, Imperial Household Agency officials carry two of the “Three Sacred Treasures of Japan” at the Ise Jingu shrine. 

The treasures are the Imperial Regalia of Japan, which are said to have been handed down through the generations and include a sacred mirror, sword and jewels. Naruhito's inheritance of the treasures will serve as a proof of ascension to the throne.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.