Emperor of Japan

From Academic Kids

His Majesty Emperor Akihito of Japan
His Majesty Emperor Akihito of Japan

Template:Politics of Japan The Emperor of Japan (天皇 tennō) is Japan's titular head of state and the head of the Japanese Imperial Family.

The role of the Emperor of Japan has alternated between that of a supreme-rank cleric with largely symbolic powers and that of an actual imperial ruler from the dawn of history until the mid-twentieth century. However, the main function of the Emperor for most of the last millennium has usually been merely to authorize and legitimize those in power. Under Japan's present constitution, the emperor is a largely ceremonial figurehead in its constitutional monarchy (see Politics of Japan).

The current Emperor is His Majesty, Emperor Akihito, who has been on the throne since his father Emperor Showa (Hirohito) died in 1989.

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

Certain dates and details may be in dispute among Japanese historians. Many Emperors cited in the formal list of Japanese Emperors died at a very young age and can hardly be said to have "ruled" in any serious sense of the word. Others were overshadowed by their predecessors, who had ostensibly retired to a monastery but continued to exert influence in a process called "cloistered rule." It is nevertheless important to maintain the entire list, because, even today, dating by the reigns of emperors is the standard way of referencing Japanese history.

Cloistered Emperors have been known to come into conflict with their offical counterparts from time to time; a notable example is the Hogen Rebellion of 1156, in which the former Emperor Sutoku attempted to seize power from the current Emperor Go-Shirakawa. Other instances, such as Go-Toba's 1221 rebellion against the Kamakura Shogunate and the 1336 Kenmu Restoration under Go-Daigo, clearly show the power struggle that has taken place between the Imperial House and the military governments of Japan.



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A flag-waving crowd greet Emperor Akihito at the Imperial Palace on his birthday. Photo taken on Dec. 23, 2004.

The emperor's role is defined in Chapter I of the 1947 Constitution of Japan. Article 1 defines the emperor as the symbol of state. Article 7 gives the emperor power to perform the functions of head of state subject to the advice and approval of the cabinet. In contrast with other constitutional monarchs, the Emperor of Japan has no reserve powers.

Although the Emperor performs many of the roles of a head of state, there has been a persistent controversy within Japan as to whether the Emperor is in fact head of state or merely someone who acts as one, as a political servant of a republican state. In a traditional monarchy political power flows from the top down, with power being exercised by politicians on behalf of the so-called Royal prerogative. However, if there is no royal prerogative then the politicians hold supreme control, and the system is reversed, with the monarch actually being subordinate to them. According to this theory the Emperor is best understood as a political actor who has a formal job within the government, but not the "head of the state" as such, since he is not at the top of the political hierarchy. Efforts in the 1950s by conservative powers to amend the constitution to explicitly name the Emperor as head of state were rejected. Regardless, the Emperor does perform all the diplomatic functions normally associated with a head of state and as a result is recognized as such by foreign powers.


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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. The earliest emperors recorded in Kojiki and Nihonshoki, such as the Emperor Jinmu, are considered today to have no historical credibility. Historians think the first emperor who existed historically was the Emperor Ojin, but the time of his reign is uncertain. These two books state that the imperial house kept a continuous lineage, though today some historians believe that many ancient emperors who were stated as descendants of Emperor Ojin had no actual genealogic tie to their predecessor. The members of the imperial house of Japan rarely marry members of royal families of other countries. However, according to the Chronicles of Japan II (續日本紀), Emperor Kanmu's mother (Takano no Niigasa) was a 200-year-old descendant of King Muryeong of Baekje, Korea. Takano's clan was low-class nobility in Japan, so Kanmu was not a prospective candidate for Emperor. Kanmu and his father became Emperor through a power game between clans. From the 1100s to 1868, the real power was in the hands of the shōguns, who were in theory always given their authority through the Emperor. When Iberian explorers first contacted Japan (see Nanban period), they likened the relationship between Emperor and shōgun to that of the Catholic Pope (godly, but with little political power) and king (earthly, but with a relatively large amount of political power).

By the constitution of 1889, the Emperor of Japan transferred a large part of his former powers as absolute monarch to the representatives of the people, but remained as head of the empire. Though inspired by the constitutions of Europe, the new Meiji Constitution was not as democratic as some had initially hoped. The Emperor was given broad and vague "reserve powers" which in turn were exploited by the prime minister and various cliques around the Emperor. By the 1930s the Japanese cabinet was largely composed of pseudo-fascist military leaders who used the Emperor and his supposed divinity as an ultra-nationalistic rallying point for expansion of the Empire. When World War II erupted, the Emperor was the symbol soldiers were indoctrinated to fight and die for. The Emperor himself was hidden from sight however, and his actual role during this period is disputed. It is commonly believed he was largely sidelined by the military. Controversy still remains as to the role Hirohito played in commanding Japanese forces during the Sino-Japanese War and the Pacific War.

Post World War II

After Japan's surrender to Allied forces ending WWII, 'Emperor' became a ceremonial title only, with real power residing in a legislative body; in essence, its de jure status is similar to the de facto status of the British monarchy. US General Douglas MacArthur insisted that Hirohito remain Emperor to keep him as a symbol of continuity and cohesion within Japanese society. Despite Truman's desire to have Hirohito tried for war crimes, Truman consented, and Hirohito kept his status, though he was forced to disavow the emperor's previous claims of being a "arahitogami, living god".

Since the war, the Emperor has become a strictly ceremonial figure within Japanese society. Though he presides over certain government events, he is now simply a figurehead who is explicitly banned from participating in politics in any way.

Succession is now regulated by laws passed by the Japanese Diet. The current law excludes females from the succession despite the historical existence of female occupants to the throne. A change to this law is being considered, since, as of 2005, the only child of heir apparent Prince Naruhito is female. (In the list of Emperors of Japan, the empresses regnant are those with an asterisk after their reigning periods.)


Due to linguistic and cultural differences between Japanese and the Western world, naming the Emperors of Japan is often troublesome. While scholastic texts in Japan use "{name} tennō" consistently, in texts by English-speaking academics several variants are used altogether and it seems there is no one concrete convention agreed yet. Among them are "Emperor {name}", "the {name} Emperor", and "{name} Tenno".

In English, the term Mikado (御門 or 帝 or みかど), which literally means "exalted gate", used to be used refer to the Emperor of Japan; this usage is now dated, as it is in Japanese. In Japanese, the emperors of Japan, but not of other countries, are known as tennō (天), which literally means "heavenly emperor" or "god-king". Sumeramikoto (lit. "heavenly ruler above the clouds") was also used in Old Japanese.

There are three Japanese words that describe the concept of "emperor": tennō (天皇) is used specifically to describe the Emperor of Japan, kōtei (皇帝, lit. "emperor of emperors") is used primarily to describe a Chinese emperor or a foreign emperor, and teiō (帝王, lit. "emperor of kings") is used to describe foreign emperors as well but never a Chinese emperor. Some scholars point out that the use of ten (天, "heaven") was, in relation to the Chinese concept of tentei (天帝, "heaven's emperor" or "the god in the sky"), meant to show that the Emperor's duty was not limited to political or military duties but included spiritual and religious duties as well.

Traditionally, East Asians consider it discourteous to call a person of noble rank by their given name. This convention is almost dead, but still observed for the Imperial family. In fact, the Emperor is never to be referred to by name (imina) unless he is dead. Instead, past Emperors are called by posthumous names such as Jinmu, Kanmu and Meiji. Since the Meiji era, era names are also used as posthumous names. The current Emperor on the throne is almost always referred to as Tennō Heika (天皇陛下, lit. "His Majesty the Emperor") or solemnly as Kinjō Tennō (今上天皇). On the other hand, in ordinary conversations he is referred to simply as Heika, Okami or To-gin san ('To-gin' is a frank expression of Kinjō). The current Emperor is not called by the current era name: the era will become his posthumous name. But today this custom tends to be followed more loosely, as described below. In English, the recent emperors are called by their personal names according to Western convention. As explained above, in Japanese this sounds offensive and, in some contexts, blasphemous.

For example, the 124th emperor is called Hirohito in English, but is always referred to as Shōwa Tennō in Japanese.

See also List of Japanese Emperors.


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, the pure Salic Law. They adopted it from Prussia, from which they took much influence in 1870's.

Strict agnatic primogeniture is. however, directly contradictory to several old Japanese traditions of Imperial succession.

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

  • Females were allowed to succeed (but apparently not allowed to be inherited by their own children, unless the father of the child also happened to be an agnate of the imperial house). However, female accession was clearly much rarer than male.
  • Adoption was possible and much used way to increase the number of succession-entitled heirs (however, the adopted child should traditionally be a child of another member of the imperial house)
  • Abdication was used very often, more often than dying on the throne. A tenno usually served something like ten years. In those days, the tenno's chief task was priestly (or godly), containing so many repetitive rituals that it was deemed that the incumbent deserved pampered retirement as an honored former Emperor (taistenno??).
  • Primogeniture was not used - rather, the imperial house practised something resembling a system of rotation. Very often a brother (or sister) followed the elder sibling even in 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 succeeding 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, "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).

See also


External links

es:Emperador_de_Japn fr:Empereur japonais ja:天皇 ko:덴노 nl:Keizers van Japan zh:日本天皇


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