Tokyo Japan’s Emperor Akihito formally abdicated Tuesday during a historic ceremony in Tokyo, becoming the country’s first monarch to step down from the Chrysanthemum Throne in two centuries.
His son, Crown Prince Naruhito, 59, will be inaugurated as the 126th emperor Wednesday, ushering in the Reiwa era.
Akihito’s reign — and the Heisei era — officially ends at midnight on Tuesday. Hereafter the 85-year-old will be known as Emperor Emeritus Akihito.
Akihito, along with Empress Michiko and the Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, attended a short ceremony at 5 p.m. local time (4 a.m. ET) in the Matsu-no-Ma state room of the Imperial Palace.
Outside, throngs of well-wishers, both Japanese and visitors from overseas, waited in the rain-soaked grounds.
In a rare instance of speaking live on television, the ruler said that he had performed his duties as the emperor with a “deep sense of trust and respect” for the Japanese people.
“I consider myself most fortunate to have been able to do so,” he said at the small abdication ceremony.
“I sincerely wish, together with the Empress, that the Reiwa era, which begins tomorrow, will be a stable and fruitful one.”
The much-loved Akihito will be remembered for connecting with his public in a way that no other Japanese monarch has done and expressing “deep remorse” for the country’s actions during World War II.
After having heart surgery and overcoming prostate cancer in recent years, the monarch cited health reasons for stepping down.
“I am worried that it may become difficult for me to carry out my duties as the symbol of the state with my whole being, as I have done until now,” the soft-spoken Emperor said in 2016, in his second TV speech in three decades.
It was seen as a plea to Japan’s lawmakers to change the law to allow him to retire. The following year, they did.
“It won attention and respect from the people, who recognized the emperor actually had a will of his own,” said Hitomi Tonomura, a historian at University of Michigan’s Center for Japanese Studies.
It was a fitting final move for a monarch who had often broken with tradition. He was also the first Japanese Emperor to marry a commoner, speak to his subjects live on television and to be hands-on in raising his children.