April 30 (UPI) -- Japanese Emperor Akihito expressed gratitude to the Japanese people Tuesday as he abdicated his throne and turned it over to his son, becoming the nation's first monarch to step down in 200 years.
"Today, I am concluding my duties as the emperor," he said in a nationally televised speech.
"I sincerely thank the people who accepted and supported me in my role as the symbol of the state."
With his abdication comes the end of the "Heisei" era and the beginning of the "Reiwa" era, which means orderly and harmony.
The ceremony began earlier Tuesday at the main Shrine of Kashikodokoro, where Akihito, 85, announced his retirement as crowds gathered outside the Imperial Palace grounds in Tokyo.
Wearing an orange traditional robe, Akihito bowed respectfully before the god with Naruhito, who was also clad in special attire, in attendance for the ritual. Empress Michiko, who suffers from neck problems, remained at the Imperial Residence within the palace.
Akihito, who was crowned emperor in 1989 following the death of his father, Hirohito, signaled in mid-2016 he wanted to step down, as his age and health were impairing his abilities.
"I am already 80 years old, and fortunately I am now in good health," he said at the time, but warned declining health may impede his ability to reign as emperor. He was the first emperor to take the throne in a post-World War II Japan and he devoted his career to righting the wrongs committed in the war Japan fought in his father's name. He is also known for reconnecting the monarchy with the people.
Though the position of emperor is solely symbolic, the Japanese Cabinet passed a bill in May that paved the path for him to abdicate and for his son to succeed Akihito.
Tuesday's ceremonies followed a series of abdication rituals that began on March 12 and finished Tuesday at the Matus no Ma room of the Imperial Place -- where some 300 people, including imperial family members and senior government officials attended.