TOKYO -- Japan's Emperor Akihito on Tuesday offered his thanks to people just hours before stepping down after 30 years and four months on the throne. The Heisei era will come to a close at midnight, and the new era of Reiwa will begin, with the first abdication since constitutional rule was adopted in the 19th century.
"I am deeply grateful to the Japanese people, who have supported and accepted me as a symbol," the emperor said in front of guests. "The empress and I will pray our country and people around the world will experience peace and happiness in the Reiwa era that begins tomorrow."
The emperor is defined as the symbol of the nation and unity of the Japanese people in the constitution.
Tuesday marks the end of the Heisei era, a period characterized, in part, by the collapse of Japan's massive asset bubble. It also saw the country struck by the worst natural disaster in living memory, when a devastating earthquake and tsunami hit northern Japan and set off the crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.
But it was also a period of relative peace for Japan, especially compared to the previous Showa era, which saw the country devastated in World War II.
The emperor and his wife are widely popular in Japan. After the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi meltdown, they traveled to the region to console and encourage survivors.
From Wednesday, Crown Prince Naruhito will ascend the throne and the Imperial era will change to Reiwa. The name was chosen from the oldest existing anthology of Japanese poetry, and it is the first to be derived from Japanese, rather than Chinese, literature. U.S. President Donald Trump is expected to be the first foreign visitor to meet the crown prince in his new capacity as emperor.
The emperor held a day of abdication rites Tuesday from morning until late afternoon, before addressing the nation for a final time.
The outgoing emperor began with two court rituals declaring his abdication on the Imperial Palace grounds in the heart of Tokyo. The solemn ceremonies took place with Crown Prince Naruhito and Prince Akishino in attendance, while Empress Michiko waited inside the Imperial Palace for health reasons.
Emperor Akihito performed the morning rituals in traditional Imperial garments.
After paying his respects inside the central Imperial Sanctuary -- where the Imperial family's divine ancestor, sun-goddess Amaterasu, is enshrined -- the emperor then read an announcement stating his intention to perform the abdication rites. The same declaration was read at the two other sanctuaries for Imperial ancestors and for various deities.
The final rite, the abdication ceremony, started at 5 p.m. in the Imperial Palace's most formal space: the "Matsu no Ma," or State Room. The 300-plus guests included the crown prince and his wife, other members of the Imperial family, and representatives from the central government's three branches and local governments.
The emperor and empress entered the hall with Imperial chamberlains carrying two of the "Three Sacred Treasures," a sword, mirror, and jewel, passed down through the Imperial family. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe spoke on behalf of the nation before the emperor's remarks.
Emperor Akihito did not touch the sacred treasures during the ceremony to ensure that his abdication cannot be taken as a personal wish, given the constitution's ban on Imperial involvement in politics.
The emperor will officially step down at midnight Wednesday.
The ceremonies related to Emperor Akihito's abdication began in March, when the date of his retirement was announced to the central sanctuary. The emperor and empress then visited the mausoleum of Emperor Jimmu, Japan's legendary first emperor, and Ise Shrine, the nation's holiest Shinto site. The monarchs completed their duties Saturday and have spent the last few days resting at their residence in preparation for the abdication.