Akihito in his final address as emperor thanked the Japanese people for their support during his 30-year reign and said he would “pray for the peace and happiness of all the people in Japan and around the world”.
The formal abdication came in the “Room of Pine” in Toyko’s Imperial Palace when Akihito announced his retirement standing next to his wife Empress Michiko and in the presence of his son Crown Prince Naruhito, other members of the royal family and top government officials.
He is the first Japanese emperor to abdicate since Kokaku in 1817. Akihito’s abdication had to be approved by parliament.
The monarch had started his abdication rituals at a Shinto shrine on Tuesday morning.
Television images showed Akihito in a traditional robe entering the main Shrine of Kashiko-dokoro to report his abdication to the gods.
The shine is where the goddess Amaterasu, said to be a direct ancestor of the imperial family, is enshrined. Only part of Akihito’s shrine ritual was public.
Akihito’s reign runs through midnight (15:00GMT) then Prince Naruhito becomes the new emperor and his era begins. Naruhito will ascend the Chrysanthemum Throne on Wednesday ushering in a new era called Reiwa.
The name of the new imperial era, means “beautiful harmony”.
Naruhito will inherit the imperial regalia of sword and jewel, as well as imperial seals as proof of his succession as the nation’s 126th emperor.
As Akihito made his last public appearance as emperor, many people gathered outside the high walls of the palace compound despite unseasonably wet and cold weather.
“We came because today is the last day of (the emperor’s era of) Heisei, and we feel nostalgic,” said Akemi Yamauchi, 55, standing outside the palace with her husband.
“We like the current emperor. He has worked hard for the people, he is very thoughtful, and kind to everyone,” said her husband, Kaname. The couple came from Kyoto, Japan’s ancient capital where emperors lived until about 150 years ago.
Messages have also come from global leaders.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in expressed gratitude in a letter to Akihito for his emphasis on peace and contributions to developing relations between Seoul and Tokyo.
President Donald Trump expressed “appreciation” for his contribution to the two countries’ close relations.
Trump had a courtesy meeting with Akihito during his 2017 Japan visit and will be the first foreign leader in May to meet the new emperor.
Akihito, 85, took the throne in 1989 and devoted his career to making amends for a war fought in his father’s name while bringing an aloof monarchy closer to the people.
With his commoner-born wife, he reached out to the people, especially those who faced disabilities and discrimination, as well as those hit by disasters, illuminating the hardships of people often overlooked by society.
Akihito was the first emperor to marry a commoner, one of many changes he brought to the palace.
The couple also chose to raise their three children themselves instead of leaving them with palace staff, and have decided to be cremated upon their deaths in a smaller tomb side by side, also a tradition-breaking step.
Akihito is expected to enjoy his retirement, going to museums and concerts, or spend time on his research into goby fish at a seaside imperial villa. Akihito and Michiko will move to a temporary royal residence before eventually switching places with Naruhito.