The Japanese government has announced that Emperor Akihito will abdicate on April 30, 2019, and his son, Crown Prince Naruhito, will ascend the throne the following day, on May 1. Akihito will be the first Japanese emperor to abdicate since 1817.

Imperial abdications are not uncommon in Japanese history, with emperors retiring or being forced to retire for various reasons. Japan’s emperors have usually been figureheads, with real power in the hands of politicians, noblemen and military commanders. More ambitious emperors would relinquish their thrones, freeing themselves from their ceremonial role to become politically active as abdicated emperors (daijo tenno) in a process unique to Japan.

There were fewer abdications among Chinese rulers, and many occurred in the states and king­doms of a divided China. Monarchs of major dynasties who abdicated include ailing 82-year-old Empress Wu Zetian, who was forced to give the throne back to her son in a palace coup in AD705.

Emperor Huizong, of the Northern Song dynasty, preferred dabbling in the arts and Taoism to dealing with the domestic strife and foreign inva­sions, and divested the title of emperor to his son in 1125.

How the last Qing emperor was forced to abdicate

The Qing dynasty Emperor Qianlong (who reigned from 1735 to 1796) abdicated during the 60th year of this reign out of respect for his grand­father, Emperor Kangxi, who is considered one of the greatest Chinese emperors. Kangxi had reigned for 61 years, from 1661 to 1722.

After his abdication and until his death in 1799, Qianlong continued to wield real power as emperor emeritus (taishang huangdi).