Welcome to part two of my imperial blog post! Last time, we covered some of Japan’s oldest and newest emperors, today we will have a look at who’s in between. There truly is a lot to say about Japanese emperors (they are, one might argue, the backbone of the Japanese state), so I would like to give you a little bit more contextual information (the history of Japan in a nutshell) while simultaneously highlighting the accomplishments (and failures) of some of these rulers. Like I told you before, there have been 125 emperors thus far, allegedly all part of the same family since 600 BC. The first emperors and empresses are of rather legendary status and not much historical evidence can be found to verify their actions or even their existence.
At the end of the 7th century, a more reliable system of imperial era names (gengō 元号) was introduced, indicating a new era period in which a new emperor ascended the throne, or another historic event of great importance. Since the Meiji period, new era names could only change with every new emperor. Today, this system of periodization is still in use: the current year (2017 AD), for example, is Heisei 29 平成二十九年. Heisei indicates the period of emperor Akihito’s reign, and 29 is the 29th year of his ascension in 1989 (Heisei 1 = 1989). The name of the period refers to the posthumous name of the emperor. As such, the previous era, the Shōwa period (1926-1989), is named after Akihito’s father Hirohito, whose posthumous name is Emperor Shōwa. The names of emperors I mention in my blog posts, are always their posthumous names, with the exception of recent emperors. You might think this practice is outdated but nothing is less true. All official documents, newspapers, and other texts you will come across as a student of Japanese studies, use this era-naming system. Be prepared.
Another link between emperor and era system is the place where the imperial family lived: the home city of the emperor was de facto the capital of Japan. Before the 7th century, assumed capitals are as legendary as their inhabiting emperors. It was customary to move the capital with every new emperor, since the demise of the previous one had “tainted” the palace. However, when Empress Genmei settled in Nara, then called “Heijo capital” (Heijō-kyō 平城京), it remained the capital for around 70 years (with one interruption of five years). Today, Nara is certainly worth visiting, with its historical palace Heijō-kyū 平城宮, many temples and shrines. The city itself was built in the middle of nowhere and was a smaller version of the Chinese capital Chang’an, structured in a grid pattern. Based on geomantic Feng Shui principles, the city is surrounded by mountains on three sides, a river that flows from North to South, and a palace facing South. It quickly urbanized and the population grew exponentially – yet it must be said that the inhabitants were mainly aristocrats (including the imperial family), civil servants and the clergy, the soldiers that protected them and the people who provided for their needs.
The Japanese Emperor had never been this powerful: he or she represented the central state (the old Japanese word for emperor, mikado, was even written in Chinese with the characters for state 国家), owned all of the land and the people on it and was above the law. The emperor ruled Japan by means of a centralized bureaucratic system. Under Empress Genmei’s reign, the discovery of Japanese copper was made and the Kojiki (“Records of Ancient matters” 古事記) was compiled. Succeeding her was Empress Genshō, the only female ruler that inherited her title from another empress regnant.
The next Emperor, Shōmu, was the first to marry a “commoner”, someone outside the imperial family: a Fujiwara consort. If you know a little bit about Japanese history, you’ll probably recognize the name Fujiwara. The Fujiwaras were an aristocratic clan that basically monopolized all political power throughout the Heian period (794 – 1185). They maintained this power by marrying off their female family members to the emperor, hence securing a position as regent (sesshō 摂政or kanpaku 関白). As was often the case in history and still is in many countries today, the one with the highest position in theory does not hold as much power in practice as the one situated just one rank lower in hierarchy. You can compare it to a monarchy in which the prime minister is in charge and not the king. Emperor Shōmu also set the trend of retiring as a Buddhist priest.
Speaking of Buddhism, when the imperial family in Nara started to feel threatened by the power of the Buddhist clergy, Emperor Kanmu moved the capital to Kyoto (heian-kyō 平安京) in 794, where it would remain until mid-nineteenth century with the exception of a “pop-up” shogunate capital in Kamakura in the twelfth century. Again, the city was modelled after Chang’an (and Nara). The palace, Daidairi 大内裏 or Heian-kyū 平安宮, lasted for five centuries until it burnt down to the ground – it doesn’t help that it was (re)constructed mainly out of wood. Besides arson, a lot of things happened during the Heian period. As I mentioned before, the court was practically kept under the Fujiwara’s thumb. The imperial family lost much of their “public” authority (my professor called this development a “privatization of the imperial power”) and had to compete with rivaling families by accumulating private properties and ruling the country through other, not so direct means.
The emperor was soon nothing more than a state symbol, tasked with the performance of religious ceremonies. Life at the Heian court was ridiculously luxurious and the gap between the aristocracy and the common people could not have been greater. As we know from writings dating back to the 10th century, court nobles cared a lot about their appearances, each others’ manners and spending their days in leisure (examples here). Peace at the Heian court was disrupted when the Genpei 源平 war (described in the Heike Monogatari) broke out. The war was fought between the samurai of the Fujiwara’s (Minamoto 源 clan) and the warrior of the Emperor (Taira 平 clan). Yoritomo Minamoto seized power and established the first shogunate government (bakufu 幕府) in Kamakura. This move created a diarchic situation in which the emperor had even less power than before.
Here, the story becomes a little bit inception-like: the family that was really in charge of the shogunate was not the Minamoto’s, but the Hōjō 北条 clan. This family was related to the Taira, but betrayed them to the Minamoto clan, before betraying the latter as well. After Yoritomo’s death, they occupied the position of regent through intermarriage not only to the bakufu, but even to the emperor, hence reducing both players to puppets. Fujiwara 2.0, let’s say. Some emperors tried to reverse the situation, like the retired emperor Go-Toba, who sent an army to Kamakura. This attempt failed and the imperial family was severely punished. Emperor Go-Daigo was more succesful. Although his conspiracy against the Hōjō failed and he was sent into exile, other “underdogs” revolted and destroyed the Hōjō clan, including its Kamakura shogunate, in 1333.
Emperor Go-Daigo returned and established his own government, but managed to make himself so unpopular that he failed to consolidate imperial power, and soon a second shogunate was founded in Kyoto by Ashikaga Takauji. As the new shogun, Takauji put an emperor of his choice on the throne over which he ruled de facto. But ex-emperor Go-Daigo was not yet defeated and moved his own court to Nagano, close to Nara. As a result, there were two courts: one in the South, and one in the North, dominated by the bakufu. In 1392, the Southern court surrendered. Again, the Emperor was just a puppet with pretty clothes on, now closely watched by the bakufu residing in the same capital. And yet, someone was jelly. For shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, ruling over Japan was not enough – he aspired to become emperor. His master plan was to have an imperial prince adopt his own son, make his son emperor and promote himself to “retired emperor”. He died too early to succeed. He did receive the title of “King of Japan” from China, though. And he lived in a fancy golden temple (kinkakuji 金閣寺).
There was another big war, and things went from bad to worse. The emperor was now completely obsolete and had barely enough money to pay for his own coronation ceremony. Emperor Ōgimachi had to borrow money from powerful feudal lords (daimyō 大名) to be able to buy some sake. One ambitious daimyō in particular, Oda Nobunaga, conquered all other daimyō (I’m jumping to conclusions here) but remained emperor-friendly: he protected Ōgimachi, restored the palace and guaranteed his daily bread (or rather, rice). After he was murdered, Toyotomi Hideyoshi finished the job of unifying Japan. Hideyoshi was also keen to befriend the emperor. He had himself adopted into the Fujiwara family and eventually became regent to the emperor. Power relations were clear, though, as Hideyoshi built a palace exceeding the imperial palace by far in size and splendor and invited the Emperor to visit him there (it should be the other way around).
The seventeenth century and Hideyoshi’s death called for a new leader. Tokugawa Ieyasu became shogun in 1603 and moved the political center to Edo, nowadays Tokyo. The imperial family as well as aristocratic clans in Kyoto were granted some means, but their freedom was restricted to minimize the least chance of a rebellion. They had to act in accordance with a code (Kinchū narabi ni kuge shohatto 禁中並公家諸法度) that forbade them to be politically engaged or appoint members for the administration, and forced some princes to become monks, among other rules. When Emperor Go-Mizuno’o was so sneaky to appoint religious leaders behind the bakufu‘s back, the imperial family was completely stripped of their power. They even had to start teaching to earn a living (imagine!). Basically, the emperor was tolerated yet ignored throughout the Edo period.
Two centuries later the situation turned around. The sonnō-jōi 尊王攘夷 (“revere the emperor, expel the barbarians”) movement wanted to kick the foreigners out of Japan who had been demanding trade relations from 1853 on, as well as teach the shogunate a lesson. Despite initially testing the water with some tentative proposals that were pro-bakufu, they couldn’t get over the fact that the bakufu signed treaties with the foreigners without consulting the emperor. They received support from Emperor Kōmei and in 1867, the bakufu was abolished and the shōgun surrendered his power to the emperor.
The Meiji restoration (meiji ishin 明治維新) was meant to restore imperial rule. As we have seen throughout this post, the emperor was in fact most of the time powerless, so they had to look back as far as the Nara period to imagine what prerogatives a ruling emperor should be given. The structure of Jinmu’s administration was also a source of inspiration. The imperial court was moved to Tokyo and replaced the shogunate there as the political center. Fans of the bakufu resisted but were defeated in the Boshin 戊辰 war. The Emperor became so important that the Meiji Constitution was practically written to solidify his divine sovereignty. He was also appointed supreme commander of the Japanese military force.
During the Shōwa period (1926-1989), the extreme veneration of the Emperor was exploited as a war strategy: kamikaze pilots sacrified their life in name of the emperor. Today, the role of Hirohito in World War II is still a controversial topic: some see him as a war criminal who actively took part in plotting atrocities and expansionist policies, according to others he is a tragic hero who opposed the military’s decisions but was unable to keep the situation under control. Hirohito was never convicted.
The rest of the story you already know. After Hirohito’s death, Akihito ascended the throne, not as a divine sovereign, but as a human being and purely a symbol of the state. There occurred a couple of anti-emperor incidents, like the Toranomon incident (a communist attempted to assassinate prince Hirohito) in 1923 and an incident in 1959 in which a boy threw a stone at the wedding carriage of Akihito and his wife (he did not agree with the fact that they had spent tons of tax money on the ceremony). I described these incidents in my Japanese thesis about mental health stigma, since the perpetrators were often (falsely) declared “mad” and institutionalised because of the “Chrysanthemum taboo” 菊タブー Kiku tabū: a taboo on criticizing or even discussing the emperor and the imperial system. The underlying idea was that someone who was against the emperor could only be out of his mind.
And yet, I suspect there will remain a Japanese emperor on the throne for quite some time from now. A survey by NHK in 2009 revealed that only 8% wanted to have the imperial system abolished, while 82% stated that they were just fine with an emperor as symbol. Only 6% believed he should be given political power. I think the Japanese simply cannot do away with the imperial system because it is intrinsically linked to their country’s past and present – and you have to admit, it’s quite the family history.
- Somewhere from the Heian period on, the Emperor’s names appear to be dictated by a rule that they should be composed of two Chinese characters, the first one of choice and the second one hito 仁, meaning “perfect virtue”. The names of female members of the imperial family end in ko 子, meaning “noblewoman” traditionally. While hito 仁 is highly unlikely for “commoners”, ko 子 is a popular suffix for female names.
- The Tokyo Imperial Palace was built on the ruins of the bakufu‘s Edo Castle.
- Watch this cook prepare a fish for the emperor (be patient). You should keep in mind that this food was actually offered to the gods, after which the emperor could eat from it, hence the elaborate ceremony.
- Vande Walle, Willy. Een geschiedenis van Japan van samurai tot soft power. Leuven: Acco, 2011.
- Encyclopedia Britannica
- All pictures are from Wikimedia Commons
- 井上章一『狂気と王権』東京: 講談社, 2008