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Emperor of Japan
Imperial Seal of Japan.svg
Arms of His Imperial Majesty The Emperor of Japan
Akihito 090710-1600b.jpg

Style: His Imperial Majesty
Heir apparent: Crown Prince Naruhito
First monarch: Emperor Jimmu
Formation: 660 BC


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The Emperor (天皇 tennō?, literally "heavenly emperor,"[1] formerly referred to as the Mikado) of Japan is the symbol of the state and of the unity of the Japanese people. He is the head of the Japanese Imperial Family. He is also the highest authority of the Shinto religion.[2] Under Japan's present constitution, the Emperor is the "symbol of the state and the unity of the people," and is a ceremonial figurehead in a constitutional monarchy (see Politics of Japan).

The Imperial House of Japan is the oldest continuing hereditary monarchy in the world. In Nihonshoki, a book of Japanese history finished in the 8th century, it is said that the Empire of Japan was founded in 660 BC by Emperor Jimmu. The current emperor is His Imperial Majesty the Emperor Akihito, who has been on the Chrysanthemum Throne since his father Emperor Showa died in 1989.

The role of the emperor of Japan has historically alternated between that of a supreme-rank cleric with largely symbolic powers and that of an actual imperial ruler. Contrary to Western monarchs, the role had rarely been assumed on the field since the establishment of the first shogunate. Japanese emperors have nearly always been controlled by external political forces, to varying degrees.

Since the mid-nineteenth century, the Imperial Palace has been called "Kyūjō" (宮城), then Kōkyo (皇居), and located on the former site of Edo Castle in the heart of Tokyo. Earlier emperors resided in Kyoto for nearly eleven centuries.

The Emperor's Birthday (currently celebrated on 23 December) is a national holiday.



Unlike most constitutional monarchies, the Emperor is not even the nominal chief executive. Rather, the Constitution of Japan explicitly states that the Emperor has "no powers related to government" and vests executive power in the Cabinet and Prime Minister.

The few duties the Emperor performs are closely regulated by the constitution. For example, while formally the Emperor's duties include appointing the Prime Minister to office, the Constitution requires him to appoint the candidate "designated by the Diet of Japan without being given the avenue to decline appointment." This is in marked contrast to his status under the Meiji Constitution, which recognized the emperor as the embodiment of all sovereign power of the realm.


Although the emperor has been a symbol of continuity with the past, the degree of power exercised by the emperor of Japan has varied considerably throughout Japanese history. In the early 7th century the emperor began to be called "Son of Heaven" (天子 tenshi?).[3]



The earliest emperor recorded in Kojiki and Nihon Shoki is Emperor Jimmu. The key to knowing the origin of the Japanese imperial line may lie within the ancient imperial tombs known as kofun. However, since the Meiji period, the Imperial Household Agency has refused to open the kofun to the public or to archaeologists, citing their desire not to disturb the spirits of the past emperors as justification for their refusal. But in December 2006, the Imperial Household Agency reversed its position and decided to allow researchers to enter some of the kofun with no restrictions.

Factional control

There have been six non-imperial families who have controlled Japanese emperors: the Soga (530s-645), the Fujiwara (850s-1070), the Taira (for a relatively short period), the Minamoto (and Kamakura bakufu) (1192-1333), the Ashikaga (1336-1565) and the Tokugawa (1603-1867). However, every shogun from the Minamoto, Ashikaga and Tokugawa families had to be officially recognized by the emperors, who were still the source of sovereignty, although they could not exercise their powers independently from the Shogunate.


The growth of the samurai class from the 10th century gradually weakened the power of the imperial family over the nation, leading to a time of instability. Emperors have been known to come into conflict with the reigning shogun from time to time; a notable example is the Hōgen Rebellion of 1156, in which former Emperor Sutoku attempted to seize power from the then current Emperor Go-Shirakawa, both of whom were supported by different clans of samurai. Other instances, such as Emperor Go-Toba's 1221 rebellion against the Kamakura shogunate and the 1336 Kemmu Restoration under Emperor Go-Daigo, show the power struggle between the Imperial House and the military governments of Japan.

Territorial matters

Up to recent centuries, Japan's territory did not include several remote regions of its modern-day territory. The name Nippon came into use only many centuries after the start of the current imperial line. Centralized government really only began to appear shortly before and during the time of Prince Shōtoku. The emperor was more like a revered embodiment of divine harmony rather than the head of an actual governing administration. In Japan it has always been easy for ambitious lords to hold actual power, as such positions have not been inherently contradictory to the emperor's position. Parliamentary government today continues a similar coexistence with the emperor as have various shoguns, regents, warlords, guardians, etc.

Historically the titles of Tennō in Japanese have never included territorial designations as is the case with many European monarchs. The position of emperor is a territory-independent phenomenon - the emperor is the emperor, even if he has followers only in one province (as was the case sometimes with the southern and northern courts).


From 1192 to 1867, sovereignty of the state was exercised by the shoguns, or their shikken regents (1203-1333), whose authority was conferred by Imperial warrant. When Portuguese explorers first contacted Japan (see Nanban period), they gave analogy to the relationship between emperor and shogun to that of the Pope (godly, but with little political power) and king or Holy Roman Emperor (earthly, but with a relatively large amount of political power) though this in itself can be considered inaccurate as, like the Emperor, Popes have wielded varying degrees of power throughout their history. For example, the regent Toyotomi Hideyoshi was recorded by the missionaries as "Emperor Taicosama" (from Taiko and the honorific sama).

Meiji restoration

The Meiji restoration was in fact a kind of revolution, with the domains of Satsuma and Chōshū uniting to topple the Tokugawa Shogunate. Emperor Meiji's father, Emperor Kōmei, had begun to assert himself politically after Commodore Matthew Perry's ships visited Edo. By the early 1860s, the dynamic between the imperial court and the Shogunate had changed drastically. Ironically, Kōmei had asserted himself against the Shogunate because he and the other nobles were upset at the failure of the Shogunate to expel the barbarian interlopers. Disaffected domains and ronin began to rally to the call of sonnō jōi, or "respect the emperor, expel the barbarians." Satsuma and Chōshū used this turmoil to move against their historic enemy, and won an important military victory outside of Kyoto against Tokugawa forces.

In 1868 an imperial "restoration" was declared, and the Shogunate was stripped of its powers. The new constitution officially gave executive powers to the Emperor. Article 4 prescribed that "The Emperor is the head of the Empire, combining in Himself the rights of sovereignty, and exercises them, according to the provisions of the present Constitution" while, according to article 6 "The Emperor gives sanction to laws and orders them to be promulgated and executed" and article 11, "The Emperor has the supreme command of the Army and the Navy." During the Shōwa era, the liaison conference created in 1937 also made the Emperor the leader of the Imperial General Headquarters.

Addressing and naming

There are two Japanese words equivalent to the English word "emperor": tennō (天皇, lit. "heavenly emperor"), which is used exclusively to refer to an emperor of Japan, and kōtei (皇帝, the title used for Chinese emperors), which is used primarily to describe non-Japanese emperors. Sumeramikoto (lit. "the Imperial person") was also used in Old Japanese. The term tennō was used by the emperors up until the Middle Ages; then, following a period of disuse, it was used again from the 19th century.[4] In English, the term mikado (御門 or 帝 or みかど), literally meaning "the Gate" (i.e. the gate of the imperial place, which indicates the person who lives and possesses the place), was once used (as in The Mikado, a 19th century operetta), but this term is now obsolete.[5] (Compare Sublime Porte, an old term for the Ottoman government, and Pharaoh, meaning "Great House").

Traditionally, the Japanese considered it disrespectful to call any person his given name, and more so for person of noble rank. This convention is more relaxed in modern age and now it is acceptable among friends to use the given name, but use of the family name is still common. In the case of the imperial family, it is still considered inappropriate to use the given name. Since Emperor Meiji, it has been customary to have one era per emperor and to rename each emperor after his death using the name of the era over which he presided, plus the word Tennō. Prior to Emperor Meiji, the names of the eras were changed more frequently, and the posthumous names of the emperors were chosen in a different manner.

Emperor of Japan - Tenno - New Years 2010.ogv
The Emperor of Japan giving a New Years address to the people in 2010.

Outside of Japan, beginning with Emperor Shōwa, the emperors are often referred to by their given names, both whilst alive and posthumously. For example, the previous emperor is usually called Hirohito in English, although he was never referred to as Hirohito in Japan (for it is thought to be blasphemous to pronounce the true name of the Emperor) and was renamed Shōwa Tennō after his death, which is the only name that Japanese speakers currently use when referring to him.

The current emperor on the throne is typically referred to by the title Tennō Heika (天皇陛下, lit. "His Majesty the Emperor") or Kinjō Heika (今上陛下, lit. "his current majesty") or simply Tennō (天皇, lit. the Emperor) when speaking Japanese. Other terms used to refer to the emperor in Japanese include Heika and Okami, but these are much less typical than Tennō Heika or Kinjō Heika in ordinary conversation. The current emperor will be renamed Heisei Tennō (平成天皇, lit. "Heavenly Emperor") after his death and will then be referred to exclusively by that name in Japanese. Non-Japanese speakers typically refer to him now as Akihito, or Emperor Akihito, and will likely continue to do so after his death.

Origin of the title

The ruler of Japan was known as either 大和大王/大君 (Yamato-ōkimi, Grand King of Yamato), 倭王/倭国王 (Wa-ō/Wakoku-ō, King of Wa, used externally), or 治天下大王 (ame-no-shita shiroshimesu ōkimi or sumera no mikoto, Grand King who rules all under heaven, used internally) in Japanese and Chinese sources prior to the 7th century. The oldest documented use of the word "tennō" is on a wooden slat, or mokkan, that was unearthed in Asuka-mura, Nara Prefecture in 1998 and dated back to the reign of Emperor Temmu and Empress Jitō.

Marriage traditions

The current Empress Michiko
The current Crown Princess Masako

Throughout history, Japanese emperors and noblemen appointed the position of chief wife, rather than just keeping a harem or an assortment of female attendants.

The Japanese imperial dynasty consistently practiced official polygamy, a practice that only ended in the Taishō period (1912-1926). Besides the empress, the emperor could take, and nearly always took, several secondary consorts ("concubines") of various hierarchical degrees. Concubines were allowed also to other dynasts (shinno, o). After a decision decreed by Emperor Ichijo, some emperors even had two empresses simultaneously (kōgō and chugu are the two separate titles for that situation). With the help of all this polygamy, the imperial clan thus was capable of producing more offspring. (Sons by secondary consorts were usually recognized as imperial princes, too, and could be recognized as heir to the throne if the empress did not give birth to an heir.)

Of the eight female tennō (reigning empress) of Japan, none married or gave birth after ascending the throne. Some of them, being widows, had produced children prior to their reigns.

In the succession, children of the empress were preferred over sons of secondary consorts. Thus it was significant which quarters had preferential opportunities in providing chief wives to imperial princes, i.e. supplying future empresses.

Apparently the oldest tradition of official marriages within the imperial dynasty were marriages between dynasty members, even half-siblings or uncle and niece. Such marriages were deemed to preserve better the imperial blood or were aimed at producing children symbolic of a reconciliation between two branches of the imperial dynasty. Daughters of others than imperials remained concubines, until Emperor Shōmu--in what was specifically reported as the first elevation of its kind—elevated his Fujiwara consort to chief wife.

Japanese monarchs have been, as much as others elsewhere, dependent on making alliances with powerful chiefs and other monarchs. Many such alliances were sealed by marriages. The specific feature in Japan has been the fact that these marriages have been soon incorporated as elements of tradition which controlled the marriages of later generations, though the original practical alliance had lost its real meaning. A repeated pattern has been an imperial son-in-law under the influence of his powerful non-imperial father-in-law.

Beginning from the 7th and 8th centuries, emperors primarily took women of the Fujiwara clan as their highest wives - the most probable mothers of future monarchs. This was cloaked as a tradition of marriage between heirs of two kamis, Shinto gods: descendants of Amaterasu with descendants of the family kami of the Fujiwara. (Originally, the Fujiwara were descended from relatively minor nobility, thus their kami is an unremarkable one in the Japanese myth world.) To produce imperial children, heirs of the nation, with two-side descent from the two kamis, was regarded as desirable - or at least it suited powerful Fujiwara lords, who thus received preference in the imperial marriage market. The reality behind such marriages was an alliance between an imperial prince and a Fujiwara lord, his father-in-law or grandfather, the latter with his resources supporting the prince to the throne and most often controlling the government. These arrangements created the tradition of regents (Sessho and Kampaku), with these positions allowed to be held only by a Fujiwara sekke lord.

Earlier, the emperors had married women from families of the government-holding Soga lords, and women of the imperial clan itself, i.e. various-degree cousins and often even their own sisters (half-sisters). Several imperials of the 5th and 6th centuries were children of a couple of half-siblings. These marriages often were alliance or succession devices: the Soga lord ensured the domination of a prince, to be put as puppet to the throne; or a prince ensured the combination of two imperial descents, to strengthen his own and his children's claim to the throne. Marriages were also a means to seal a reconciliation between two imperial branches.

After a couple of centuries, emperors could no longer take anyone from outside such families as primary wife, no matter what the expediency of such a marriage and power or wealth brought by such might have been. Only very rarely was a prince without a mother of descent from such families allowed to ascend the throne. The earlier necessity and expediency had mutated into a strict tradition that did not allow for current expediency or necessity, but only dictated that daughters of a restricted circle of families were eligible brides, because they had produced eligible brides for centuries. Tradition had become more forceful than law.

Fujiwara women were often Empresses, and concubines came from less exalted noble families. In the last thousand years, sons of an imperial male and a Fujiwara woman have been preferred in the succession.

The five Fujiwara families, Ichijo, Kujo, Nijo, Konoe and Takatsukasa, were the primary source of imperial brides from the 8th century to the 19th century, even more often than daughters of the imperial clan itself. Fujiwara daughters were thus the usual empresses and mothers of emperors.

The acceptable source of imperial wives, brides for the emperor and crown prince, were even legislated into the Meiji-era imperial house laws (1889), which stipulated that daughters of Sekke (the five main branches of the higher Fujiwara) and daughters of the imperial clan itself were primarily acceptable brides.

Since that law was repealed in the aftermath of World War II, the present Emperor Akihito became the first crown prince for over a thousand years to have an empress outside the previously eligible circle.


The Japanese imperial dynasty bases its position in the expression that it has "reigned since time immemorial" (万世一系 bansei ikkei). It is true that its origins are buried under mists of time: there are no records to show an existence of any early emperor who is known to have not been a descendant of other, yet earlier emperors. There is suspicion that Emperor Keitai (c. 500 CE) may have been an unrelated outsider, though the sources state that he was a male-line descendant of Emperor Ōjin.[citation needed] However, his descendants, including his successors, were according to records descended from at least one and probably several imperial princesses of the older lineage. The tradition built by those legends has chosen to recognize just the putative male ancestry as valid for legitimizing his succession, not giving any weight to ties through the said princesses.[citation needed] Millennia ago, the Japanese imperial family developed its own peculiar system of hereditary succession. It has been non-primogenitural, more or less agnatic, based mostly on rotation. Today, Japan uses strict agnatic primogeniture - in other words, pure Salic law. It was adopted from Prussia, by which Japan was greatly influenced in the 1870s.

Strict agnatic primogeniture is, however, directly contradictory to several old Japanese traditions of imperial succession.[citation needed]

The controlling principles and their interaction were apparently very complex and sophisticated, leading to even idiosyncratic outcomes. Some chief principles apparent in the succession have been:

  • Women were allowed to succeed (but there existed no known children of theirs whose father did not also happen to be an agnate of the imperial house, thus there is neither a precedent that a child of an imperial woman with a non-imperial man could inherit, nor a precedent forbidding it of children of empresses). However, female accession was clearly much more rare than male.
  • Adoption was possible and a much used way to increase the number of succession-entitled heirs (however, the adopted child had to be a child of another member agnate of the imperial house).
  • Abdication was used very often, and in fact occurred more often than death on the throne. In those days, the emperor's chief task was priestly (or godly), containing so many repetitive rituals that it was deemed that after a service of around ten years, the incumbent deserved pampered retirement as an honored former emperor.
  • Primogeniture was not used - rather, in the early days, the imperial house practised something resembling a system of rotation. Very often a brother (or sister) followed the elder sibling even in the case of the predecessor leaving children. The "turn" of the next generation came more often after several individuals of the senior generation. Rotation went often between two or more of the branches of the imperial house, thus more or less distant cousins succeeded each other. Emperor Go-Saga even decreed an official alternation between heirs of his two sons, which system continued for a couple of centuries (leading finally to shōgun-induced (or utilized) strife between these two branches, the "southern" and "northern" emperors). Towards the end, the alternates were very distant cousins counted in degrees of male descent (but all that time, intermarriages occurred within the imperial house, thus they were close cousins if female ties are counted). During the past five hundred years, however, probably due to Confucian influence, inheritance by sons - but not always, or even most often, the eldest son - has been the norm.

Historically, the succession to Japan's Chrysanthemum Throne has always passed to descendants in male line from the imperial lineage. Generally they have been males, though of the over one hundred monarchs there have been nine women (one pre-historical and eight historical) as Emperor on eleven occasions. See the male line of the Yamato dynasty.

Over a thousand years ago, a tradition started that an emperor should ascend relatively young. A dynast who had passed his toddler years was regarded suitable and old enough. Reaching the age of legal majority was not a requirement. Thus, a multitude of Japanese emperors have ascended as children, as young as 6 or 8 years old. The high-priestly duties were deemed possible for a walking child. A reign of around ten years was regarded a sufficient service. Being a child was apparently a fine property, to endure tedious duties and to tolerate subjugation to political power-brokers, as well as sometimes to cloak the real powerful members of the imperial dynasty. Almost all Japanese empresses and dozens of emperors abdicated, and lived the rest of their lives in pampered retirement, wielding influence behind the scenes. Several emperors abdicated to their entitled retirement while still in their teens. These traditions show in Japanese folklore, theater, literature and other forms of culture, where the emperor is usually described or depicted as an adolescent.

Before the Meiji Restoration, Japan had eleven reigns of female tennō, or reigning empresses, all of them daughters of the male line of the Imperial House. None ascended purely as a wife or as a widow of an emperor. Imperial daughters and granddaughters, however, usually ascended the throne as a sort of a "stop gap" measure - if a suitable male was not available or some imperial branches were in rivalry so that a compromise was needed. Over half of Japanese empresses and many emperors abdicated once a suitable male descendant was considered to be old enough to rule (just past toddlerhood, in some cases). Four empresses, Empress Suiko, Empress Kōgyoku (also Empress Saimei) and Empress Jitō, as well as the mythical Empress Jingu, were widows of deceased emperors and princesses of the blood imperial in their own right. One, Empress Gemmei, was the widow of a crown prince and a princess of the blood imperial. The other four, Empress Genshō, Empress Kōken (also Empress Shōtoku), Empress Meishō and Empress Go-Sakuramachi, were unwed daughters of previous emperors. None of these empresses married or gave birth after ascending the throne.

Article 2 of the 1889 Meiji Constitution (the Constitution of the Empire of Japan) stated, "The Imperial Throne shall be succeeded to by imperial male descendants, according to the provisions of the Imperial House Law." The 1889 Imperial Household Law fixed the succession on male descendants of the imperial line, and specifically excluded female descendants from the succession. In the event of a complete failure of the main line, the throne would pass to the nearest collateral branch, again in the male line. If the empress did not give birth to an heir, the emperor could take a concubine, and the son he had by that concubine would be recognized as heir to the throne. This law, which was promulgated on the same day as the Meiji Constitution, enjoyed co-equal status with that constitution.

Article 2 of the Constitution of Japan, promulgated in 1947 by influence of the US occupation administration and still in force, provides that "The Imperial Throne shall be dynastic and succeeded to in accordance with the Imperial Household Law passed by the Diet." The Imperial Household Law of 16 January 1947, enacted by the ninety-second and last session of the Imperial Diet, retained the exclusion on female dynasts found in the 1889 law. The government of Prime Minister Yoshida Shigeru hastily cobbled together the legislation to bring the Imperial Household in compliance with the American-written Constitution of Japan that went into effect in May 1947. In an effort to control the size of the imperial family, the law stipulates that only legitimate male descendants in the male line can be dynasts; that imperial princesses lose their status as Imperial Family members if they marry outside the Imperial Family; and that the Emperor and other members of the Imperial Family may not adopt children. It also prevented branches, other than the branch descending from Taishō, from being imperial princes any longer.

Current status

Succession is now regulated by laws passed by the Japanese Diet. The current law excludes women from the succession. A change to this law had been considered until Princess Kiko gave birth to a son.

Until the birth of Prince Hisahito, son of Prince Akishino, on September 6, 2006, there was a potential succession problem, since Prince Akishino was the only male child to be born into the imperial family since 1965. Following the birth of Princess Aiko, there was some public debate about amending the current Imperial Household Law to allow women to succeed to the throne. This creates a logistical challenge as well as political: any change in the law would most likely mean a revision to allow the succession of the first born rather than the first-born son; however, the current emperor is not the first born—he has elder sisters. In January 2005 Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi appointed a special panel composed of judges, university professors, and civil servants to study changes to the Imperial Household Law and to make recommendations to the government.

The panel dealing with the succession issue recommended on October 25, 2005 amending the law to allow females of the male line of imperial descent to ascend the Japanese throne. On January 20, 2006, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi devoted part of his annual keynote speech to the controversy, pledging to submit a bill allowing women to ascend the throne to ensure that the succession continues in the future in a stable manner. However, shortly after the announcement that Princess Kiko was pregnant with her third child, Koizumi suspended such plans. Her son, Prince Hisahito, is the third in line to the throne under the current law of succession. On January 3, 2007, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced that he would drop the proposal to alter the Imperial Household Law.[6]



  1. ^ the etymology is unknown. Opinion is hopelessly divided on the truth of etymology, 1.apotheosize Polaris (ancient Chinese mythicalja:天皇大帝), 2.Emperor Gaozong of Tang's appellation 3.variations of "天王 (literally heavenly king)" (see 天皇)
  2. ^ 役員、総代としての基礎知識 全国神社総代会編集発行「改訂神社役員、総代必携」
  3. ^ Boscaro, Adriana; Gatti, Franco; Raveri, Massimo, eds (2003). Rethinking Japan: Social Sciences, Ideology and Thought. II. Japan Library Limited. p. 300. ISBN 0-904404-79-X. 
  4. ^ Screech, (2006). Secret Memoirs of the Shoguns: Isaac Titsingh and Japan, 1779-1822, p. 232 n4.
  5. ^ Asakawa, Kan'ichi. (1903). The Early Institutional Life of Japan, Tokyo: Shueisha [New York: Paragon Book Reprint Corp., 1963], p. 25 n.1. ["We purposely avoid, in spite of its wide usage in foreign literature, the misleading term Mikado. If it be not for the natural curiosity of the races, which always seeks something novel and loves to call foreign things by foreign names, it is hard to understand why this obsolete and ambiguous word should so sedulously be retained. It originally meant not only the Sovereign, but also his house, the court, and even the State, and its use in historical writings causes many difficulties which it is unnecessary to discuss here in detail. The native Japanese employ the term neither in speech nor in writing. It might as well be dismissed with great advantage from sober literature as it has been for the official documents."]
  6. ^


  • Asakawa, Kan'ichi. (1903). The Early Institutional Life of Japan, Tokyo: Shueisha. [New York: Paragon Book Reprint Corp., 1963],
  • Screech, Timon. (2006). Secret Memoirs of the Shoguns: Isaac Titsingh and Japan, 1779-1822. London: RoutledgeCurzon. 10-ISBN 0-700-71720-X; 13-ISBN 978-0-700-71720-0
  • This article incorporates text from the Encyclopædia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain.

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