iriye1_KAZUHIRO NOGIAFPGetty Images_japanemporerwave Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP/Getty Images

Japan’s Global Emperor Exits the Stage

Japan’s Emperor Akihito, who is abdicating after three decades on the Chrysanthemum Throne, has been much more of a global leader than a national one. That sets him apart from his father – and from many of the world’s current leaders.

PHILADELPHIA – Japan’s Emperor Akihito will abdicate on April 30, having sat on the Chrysanthemum Throne since 1989. At the age of 85, Akihito seemingly wishes to live in quiet retirement with Empress Michiko, his wife of 60 years. His elder son, Crown Prince Naruhito, will succeed him as emperor.

Akihito’s reign began upon the death of his father, Hirohito, whose life had spanned decades of domestic and international turmoil. Although Akihito himself came of age during the tumultuous era of World War II and the Cold War, both Japan and the world had changed significantly by the time he became emperor. And he is likely to be remembered as a monarch who made a positive mark on the global stage.

Understanding Akihito’s reign requires some modern historical context. From about the late eighteenth century to the middle of the twentieth, people in most parts of the world belonged either to an empire or, increasingly, to an independent country. There were still relatively few sovereign states at the end of the nineteenth century. But as more people living in empires asserted nationhood, the number of independent states grew from around 50 to over 200 during the twentieth century. People from around the world came to identify themselves as citizens of a sovereign country.

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