Elderly man waving with his wife by his side (© Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP/Getty Images)
Japan's Emperor Akihito, with Empress Michiko by his side, waves to well-wishers on April 18, 2019. (© Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP/Getty Images)

Japan will undergo a historic transition when Emperor Akihito, 85, abdicates in favor of his elder son, Crown Prince Naruhito, 59, on April 30.

The imperial house of Japan is the world’s oldest continuous monarchy, and Akihito is the 125th emperor in a line stretching back to the country’s founding by the Emperor Jimmu in 600 BCE.

Man and woman in traditional Japanese formal royal dress (JIJI PRESS/AFP/Getty Images)
Akihito and Michiko pose on their wedding day at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo in April 1959. (JIJI PRESS/AFP/Getty Images)

Under its 1947 constitution, Japan is a modern democratic state. Its emperor is a figurehead with no political authority, defined as “the symbol of the state and the unity of the people” under the country’s postwar constitution.

Black-and-white photo of young Japanese woman and man seated at tennis court (© The Asahi Shimbun/Getty Images)
Crown Prince Akihito and his fiancée, Michiko Shōda, at the Tokyo Lawn Tennis Club in 1958. The two first met on a tennis court. (© The Asahi Shimbun/Getty Images)

A strong Japanese business culture developed soon after World War II, with strong growth in the 1980s. While Japan’s growth slowed under Akihito, the economy continues to be a high-tech and manufacturing leader. Today, Japan’s economy ranks as the third-largest in the world, behind only the United States’ and China’s. Japan is a leading U.S. trading partner.

As crown prince, Akihito broke with tradition by marrying Michiko Shōda — a commoner — in 1959. He was the first emperor or emperor-in-waiting allowed to marry an ordinary citizen.

During Akihito’s 30-year reign, Japan experienced a number of social changes, including the modernization of social norms, with rising college enrollment rates for women and increasing numbers of women in professional fields.

Reaching out

Group of four men standing in front of U.N. building (© Bettmann/Getty Images)
Prince Akihito at the United Nations in New York in September 1953 (© Bettmann/Getty Images)

Throughout Akihito’s reign, Japan and the United States have cooperated on a wide range of security, economic, and energy issues. U.S. and Japanese military forces have conducted joint training exercises and launched bilateral rescue operations when natural disasters struck Japan in 2011 and 2018.

Four people seated in ornately decorated room (© The Asahi Shimbun/Getty Images)
President George H.W. Bush (second from left) and his wife, Barbara, (second from right) with Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko in January 1992 in Tokyo (© The Asahi Shimbun/Getty Images)

Akihito, who once compared the role of Japanese royalty to that of a robot, has often expressed a desire to bring the imperial family closer to the people of Japan.

A new era begins

Teenage girl standing between parents (© Toru Hanai/AP Images)
Crown Prince Naruhito (left) and Crown Princess Masako accompany their daughter, Princess Aiko, to her graduation ceremony at a primary school in Tokyo in March 2014. (© Toru Hanai/AP Images)

In 2016, Akihito raised the subject of abdication, citing his concern that advancing age and declining health might impede his ability to carry out his duties. The Japanese Diet (parliament) granted permission for him to step down. When he ends his reign on April 30, he will be the first Japanese emperor to relinquish the throne in 200 years.

Akihito’s three-decade reign is known in Japan as the era of “Heisei,” or “achieving peace.” When Naruhito succeeds his father on May 1, he will usher in a new era named “Reiwa” (which translates roughly as “good fortune” and “peace” or “harmony,” according to the Japan Times newspaper).

Japan’s chief Cabinet secretary, Yoshihide Suga, announced the name of the next imperial era on April 1. “We hope [the era name] will be widely accepted by the [Japanese] people and deeply rooted as part of their lives,” Suga told reporters.