TOKYO – The era of Japanese Emperor Akihito will come to an end on April 30, when he is set to abdicate in favor of his first-born after three decades on the throne which have been marked by his tact and the modernization of the country, interspersed with multiple natural disasters.
Born on Dec. 23, 1933, Akihito was named emperor on Jan. 7, 1989 after the death of his father, Emperor Hirohito. A day later began his reign, named the “Heisei” period, characterized by the pursuit of honor while maintaining peace.
Akihito, whose formal ascension to the throne took place a year later on Nov. 12, 1990, was the first emperor to be crowned without the characteristic divine halo of his predecessors, and he was very conscious that his role would be crucial, although he also sought to remain close to the people.
His reign began at an upbeat moment for the country, as it was undergoing an economic bubble that lasted until the end of the 1990s and was marked by technological development and an explosion of Japanese pop culture: urban tribes, their particular brand of fashion, and the internationalization of manga and anime.
Akihito already started displaying a pioneering approach during the first few years of his rule: in 1992, he became the first Japanese sovereign to visit China, a country invaded by Japan during his father’s reign, and a year later became the first Japanese monarch to meet the Pope by seeing John Paul II.
In the middle of this turbulent period, Japan witnessed the first large-scale catastrophe of Akihito’s reign when the Great Hanshin earthquake struck the city of Kobe and its surrounding area on Jan. 17, 1995, causing more than 6,400 deaths while 40,000 people were injured and more than 300,000 evacuated.
This was followed by other calamities, both natural and man-made, including the sarin gas attack on the Tokyo metro carried out by the Aum Shinrikyo (Supreme Truth) cult in March 1995, which poisoned around 6,300 people, causing 13 deaths and reducing dozens of people to a vegetative state. The attack shocked the entire nation.
In July 2000, the eruption of a volcano on Miyake island, south of Tokyo, led to the evacuation of residents for more than four years. They had to temporarily leave the island again in 2015 due to another eruption.
Known for his extreme reticence, Akihito issued an unusual message to the nation after one of the worst tragedies of the era in Japan, the Great Tohoku earthquake and the subsequent tsunami on March 11, 2011, which left more than 18,000 dead or missing and triggered the Fukushima nuclear accident.
Days later, Akihito, along with Empress Michiko, visited an evacuation center near Tokyo, having also visited the survivors of the Kobe earthquake in 1995.
This human touch which Akihito has always tried to demonstrate was a “pleasant surprise” for the Japanese people, Makoto Inoue, a journalist with the Japanese daily Nikkei who has covered the imperial household for 14 years, said at a recent press conference on the Emperor.
Over the years, the natural disasters have accompanied the modernization of the country.
In September 2014, more than 50 people were killed by the eruption of the Ontake volcano, the worst volcanic disaster in the country in the last seven decades. The 2016 Kumamoto earthquake and the Hokkaido earthquake of 2018 are other recent natural disasters during Akihito’s reign.
This is probably why a majority of the Japanese people chose the catchword for “disaster, catastrophe” as defining the three decades of the Heisei era in an online survey carried out and published in late March by the insurance company Sumimoto Life.
“I cannot forget the natural disasters that struck with even greater frequency than in previous years. Many people lost their lives, while many others lost the basis of their livelihoods due to disasters such as torrential rains, earthquakes, and typhoons,” the monarch said in December in his last birthday message to the people before his abdication.
A tennis enthusiast, a well-known expert in the scientific study of gudgeon fish, a cello player and an author of waka poems, Akihito expressed his desire to abdicate due to advanced age and delicate health in a rare televised message on Aug. 8, 2016.
His only other televised address remains the one issued after the deadly 2011 earthquake and tsunami.
Akihito is the 125th Emperor of Japan – a country with a notoriously long, uninterrupted line of successive hereditary monarchs – and has overseen 17 prime ministers and 25 governments during his 30 years on the throne.