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Akihito’s Unprecedented Decision: A Chronology of Royal Abdications

TOKYO – The Emperor of Japan’s suggestion on Monday of his possible abdication is an unheard-of situation for the Land of the Rising Sun, although monarchs giving up their crowns before their deaths is a fairly common practice in other countries.

Emperor Akihito, aged 82, expressed concern in a televised speech about his ability to carry out his duties as his health declined, thus creating an opportunity for his son and heir, Crown Prince Naruhito, to ascend the Chrysanthemum Throne.

Japan’s post-World War II Constitution does not include any references to a royal abdication and subsequent succession, which means Prime Minister Shinzo Abe would have to amend the basic law to allow for 56-year-old Prince Naruhito’s coronation before his father’s death.

Although restricted by his purely ceremonial role with its many constitutional constraints which compelled him to avoid explicitly mentioning the word abdication, Emperor Akihito strongly implied his stepping down as the country’s 125th monarch was a likelihood.

Japan is considered the oldest hereditary monarchy in the world, as tradition has it that the Chrysanthemum Throne has been continuously occupied since the seventh century BCE.

While the concept of abdication may be a novelty in Japan, there are numerous precedents in other countries, as these examples from the 20th and 21st centuries show:

Chronology of royal abdications in the last century

March 2, 1917 – Bolshevik revolutionaries forced the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II, the last Emperor of Russia, who was later executed along with his family before the establishment of the Soviet Union.

November 9, 1918 – Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicated the German Imperial throne and the Prussian Crown, marking the end of the Second Reich and the start of the fragile Weimar Republic.

January 15, 1919 – Marie-Adélaïde, Grand Duchess of Luxembourg, abdicated in favor of her younger sister Charlotte, who went on to save the dynasty and the monarchy by winning a national referendum.

September 27, 1922 – Constantine I of Greece abdicated for a second time (he had been exiled between 1917 and 1920) in favor of his eldest son, George II, after a turbulent reign marred by World War I.

March 2, 1935 – King Prajadhipok, or Rama VII of Siam (currently Thailand), became the first and only Siamese monarch of the Chakri Dynasty to abdicate, with his nephew Ananda Mahidol assuming the throne as Rama VIII.

December 11, 1936 – King Edward VIII of the United Kingdom abdicated amid great controversy following his marriage proposal to American divorcée Wallis Simpson, which unleashed a constitutional crisis only 10 months into his reign and forced his abdication in favor of his younger brother Albert, who became known as George VI.

January 15, 1941 – Alfonso XIII of Spain, who had been living in exile since the establishment of the Second Republic on April 14, 1931, ceded his dynastic rights to his third son, Infante Juan de Borbon, Count of Barcelona.

May 9, 1946 – Victor Emmanuel III of Italy, who reigned during both world wars and the rise and fall of fascism, transferred his powers to his son Umberto II, who would become the last king of Italy after reigning for only a month before Italy was declared a republic in a referendum held on June 2.

September 4, 1948 – Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands, after reigning for 58 years, abdicated in favor of her only daughter, Juliana; the reigns of both monarchs combined spanned nearly 90 years.

July 16, 1951 – Leopold III of Belgium, after spending time as a prisoner of the Nazis and living the post-war years exiled in Switzerland amid accusations of treason, was forced to cede the crown to his son Baudouin I.

November 12, 1964 – Charlotte, Grand Duchess of Luxembourg, emulated her older sister Marie-Adéläide and abdicates in favor of her son Jean, who would reign until his own abdication in 2000.

October 4, 1967 – Sultan Omar Ali Saifudin III of Brunei willingly abdicated in favor of Crown Prince Hassanal Bolkiah, the nation-state’s current Sultan.

May 14, 1977 – Infante Juan de Borbon formally renounces his rights to the Spanish Crown in favor of his son Juan Carlos I, who had already been designated heir by dictator Francisco Franco eight years earlier.

April 30, 1980 – Juliana of the Netherlands abdicated on her 71st birthday in favor of her eldest daughter Beatrix.

October 7, 2000 – Jean, Grand Duke of Luxembourg, abdicated and was succeeded on the throne by his son Henri, the current monarch of the landlocked Grand Duchy.

October 7, 2004 – King Norodom Sihanouk of Cambodia, who reigned between 1922-1955 and again from 1993-2004, wrote a letter calling for a nine-member throne council to select his son and current king, Norodom Sihamoni, as his successor.

January 24, 2006 – Sheikh Saad Al-Abdullah Al-Salim Al-Sabah of Kuwait agreed to abdicate following a power struggle within the ruling family after only nine days reigning as the fourth Emir of Kuwait, with his younger brother Sabah IV Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah succeeding him on the throne.

December 9, 2006 – Druk Gyalpo (“Dragon King”) Jigme Singye Wangchuck, the reformist King of Bhutan, abdicated in favor of his eldest son, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, shortly after promoting a democratic Constitution.

January 25, 2013 – Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, the ruling Emir of Qatar, handed over power to his fourth son and current ruler, the then-33-year-old Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani.

April 30, 2013 – Beatrix of the Netherlands announced on Queen’s Day her abdication in favor of her eldest son, Willem-Alexander.

July 21, 2013 – Albert II, King of the Belgians, abdicated the throne due to health reasons and was succeeded by his son, Philippe.

June 19, 2014 – Juan Carlos I of Spain abdicated in favor of his youngest offspring, his son and heir Felipe VI, following an institutional crisis marred by several controversies, such as a 2012 elephant-hunting trip to Botswana that left him injured.


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