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  • Other Titles: 内裏 (dairi), 禁裏 (kinri), 天子 (tenshi), 御門 (mikado)
  • Japanese: 天皇 (tennô)

The hereditary monarch of Japan is commonly referred to in English as the "emperor." In addition to his secular political role, the tennô is also considered the highest Shinto priest in Japan.

Japan has historically had a number of reigning empresses as well, also called tennô and considered of equivalent position and status. The possibility for a woman to come to power as reigning empress was terminated, however, in the 1889 Meiji Constitution, Article II of which stipulates that the succession to the throne is to follow the male line.[1] Prior to that time, on a number of occasions in Japanese history, a widow or daughter succeeded to the throne.



Though the spiritual status of the emperor today is largely the result of the Meiji period reinvention of the position alongside State Shinto, it fundamentally derives from the ancient origins of rulers in the archipelago as simultaneously secular and spiritual - or even magical - rulers. The legendary ruler Himiko is described in the Wei zhi as a priestess or shamaness, and the legendary Empress Jingû is similarly described in some sources as a great shamaness. These earliest chieftains or monarchs emerged in the Yayoi and Kofun periods, periods when it might be said the Japanese islands and the Korean peninsula shared in the same cultural complex. Indeed, the rulers of Korea's ancient Three Kingdoms held similar status - as simultaneously secular ruler, and chief shaman of the kingdom. In Silla, the royal crown was the mark not only of the secular ruler, but indeed of this leading shamanic status.[2]

The phenomenon of chieftain/shaman-kings developed, eventually, by the late 6th century, into a single chieftain/royal clan, the Yamato clan, dominating central Japan. It was this clan which later expanded its control to cover - eventually - the entire archipelago, claiming singular authority, legitimacy, and titles that have come to be rendered in English as "emperor." Though it has become quite commonplace to refer to all rulers of Japan, stretching back to the wholly fictional Emperor Jimmu of the 600s BCE, as "emperor," a number of scholars have argued that there is good reason to not consider any figures prior to the 7th century Japanese "emperors," or even to abandon the term altogether. See below for further details on considerations regarding terminology.

The Yamato clan reinforced its claims to singular authority and legitimacy through the compilations in the early 8th century of the Kojiki and Nihon shoki, which relate Japanese myth and history as the story of the one and only Imperial family, descended from an unbroken line of descent stretching back to the sun goddess, Amaterasu. Amaterasu had been the patron deity of the Yamato family while other competing clans had their own separate patron deities; now the sun was elevated above all others, as were her descendants, rendering the Imperial family unique and unassailable in their legitimacy. Though the Imperial family would split in the 14th century into competing lineages, in what is known as the Nanbokuchô period, or the Period of Northern and Southern Courts, members of both lineages had legitimate claims to the throne based on their descent; the Yamato lineage would never be overthrown, and remains on the throne today.

Though emperors themselves were quite powerful for a time in the 8th to 10th centuries, by the beginning of the 11th, if not earlier, imperial power had been co-opted to a considerable degree by members of the Fujiwara clan of court aristocrats, who dominated the regency, and married their daughters into the imperial clan in order to ensure that future emperors would be loyal to the Fujiwara, through their Fujiwara mothers and grandparents. Fujiwara no Michinaga (d. 1027) is often said to represent the pinnacle of this phenomenon, wielding very considerable power despite his position as regent, never emperor. By the end of the 11th century, however, a new pattern emerged, as Retired Emperors wrested power away from the Fujiwara clan, and claimed it for themselves. In their retirement, Emperors from Shirakawa (ret. 1087) through Go-Shirakawa (ret. 1158), worked to ensure that reigning emperors were relatively young - and therefore relatively lacking in influence or power - so they (the Retired Emperors) could retain considerable power for themselves.

The era of emperors wielding any significant degree of real power came to an end, however, in the 1150s or 1160s, as the Taira clan inserted themselves as powerful regents, taking over in many respects the position occupied previously by the Fujiwara. The Taira were destroyed in the Genpei War of the 1180s, after which the Minamoto clan established the Kamakura shogunate, marking the beginning of nearly 700 years of samurai rule. With some notable exceptions - such as the later Kamakura shoguns being Imperial Princes, and the short-lived Kemmu Restoration of the 1330s - emperors, and indeed the Imperial Court more broadly, would not be the dominant political force in Japan until after 1868. For much of the Edo period (1603-1868), in fact, emperors barely ever even left the Imperial Palace, and were designated by the Tokugawa shogunate to consider their chief duty the maintenance of proper court rituals and elite court culture. Emperors and their courtiers were expected to devote themselves to ritual, and to maintaining the ancient customs of their ancestors, including literary practices, appreciating nature, and managing estates.[3] Emperors retained a powerful, significant, symbolic role, as the source of all political legitimacy, and the kokugaku (National Studies) movement of the 18th-19th centuries revived, or at least renewed emphasis on, notions of the divine origins of the Imperial family. But they would continue to exercise little true political influence until after the fall of the shogunate.

The Meiji Restoration of 1868 nominally restored true power to the emperor. By 1889, the position of the emperor had been reinvented, with numerous aspects of ancient spiritual, mythological, ritual, and symbolic elements being revived or invoked as part of a massive effort to recreate the position of the emperor as symbol & embodiment of the Nation, its divine leader, descended from an unbroken lineage stretching back to the Sun Goddess. The Meiji Emperor was both a modern ruler in numerous ways, wielding true political power like constitutional monarchs elsewhere in the world and serving as a head of state on the world stage, and also a deeply traditional ruler, with spiritual, ritual, and symbolic associations and responsibilities. The Imperial institution and its history was extensively reinvented at this time, with the Meiji government establishing new official lineages (including certain legendary or historical figures and excluding others), designating ancient burial sites as officially being considered the tombs of particular legendary or historical emperors, and claiming that particular rituals, invented or re-invented at that time, had been performed in just such a fashion for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.

In 1945, an emperor's voice was heard over the radio for the first time. Shortly afterwards, the Shôwa Emperor (Hirohito) formally declared himself to not be divine, but only human. Under the new Constitution adopted in 1946, the emperor is still today regarded as "the symbol of the State and of the unity of the People," but he is denied "powers related to government."[4]


In Japanese

The term tennô, though standard today, was not common traditionally. Historian Watanabe Hiroshi even suggests that to the average Edo period person, the word tennô would primarily suggest images of the Shitennô ("Four Heavenly Generals") or other Buddhist figures, and not an idea of the emperor.[5] In the Edo period, terms such as dairi, kinri, kinchû (all metonyms more literally referring to the palace), and mikado (another metonym, lit. "august gate") were more common. These metonyms were used almost exclusively in place of any personal or individual name for the Emperor; even today, the term tennô heika ("His Majesty the Emperor") is the most widely used referent, as opposed to any personal or even reign name. In 1864 as well, a group of Japanese officials in China, when pressured to name the emperor, are said to have been unable to do so, saying simply kinri.[6] Reign names (such as Meiji Emperor or Heisei Emperor) are exclusively posthumous, and thus are not possible referents for the emperor during his life or reign.

In accordance with Chinese practice, the term tenshi (lit. "son of Heaven") was also common in the pre-modern period. In fact, in a famous communication said to have been issued to the Chinese emperor by Shôtoku Taishi in 607, in which he wrote "from the Son of Heaven of the land of the rising sun, to the Son of Heaven in the land of the setting sun," this is the term used for both emperors.[7]

The term tennô (C: tiān huáng) is said to have originally had a strong association with the Taoist worship of the North Star, and was only ever used in China briefly, from around 675 to around 705. Of course, it was during this period that the Yamato court adopted many aspects of Chinese political ideology, and indeed it was during that brief period that the term tennô came into use in Japan, beginning with either Emperor Temmu (r. 673-686) or his successor Empress Jitô (r. 686-697). This marks the end of the period of "Great Kings" (ôkimi), and the beginning of rule by "emperors."[8] Amino Yoshihiko, among others, have argued that this also marks the beginning of something we might legitimately call "Japan," suggesting that what came before should be considered "Wa" or "Yamato," and not "Japan," that all rulers prior to Temmu should not be called "emperors," and that figures such as Empress Suiko (r. 593-628) and Shôtoku Taishi, important as they may be historically, should not be considered "Japanese."[9]

The term tennô, adopted perhaps in the late 7th century, continued to be applied when referring posthumously to emperors through the 13th century before falling out of use. The use of this term was only revived following the death of Emperor Kôkaku in 1840.[10]

While the term tennô was adopted in Japan, more standard terms for "emperor" in China include huángdi (J: kôtei) and simply di (J: tei). In Japanese, these terms are used almost exclusively to refer only to non-Japanese emperors (e.g. including not only Chinese emperors, but also emperors of Rome or of the Holy Roman Empire). The term kôtei was only used in Japan to refer to the Japanese emperor for a time in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and then only in communication with China, before the title tennô was formally adopted in 1936.[7]

Regardless of which of these terms was employed, however, for much of Japanese history, Japanese rulers made a point of emphasizing that Japan, too, possessed a Son of Heaven, an "emperor," and not a "king" (国王, J: kokuô, C: guo wang). Regardless of how we might translate it (as "king" or otherwise), to be ruled by a koku-ô, as Korea and Ryûkyû were, meant submission to Chinese suzerainty. The koku-ô of Korea and Ryûkyû received investiture from Chinese envoys, meaning that their legitimacy was, at least in some sense, derived from or dependent upon the Chinese emperor. Furthermore, in order to engage in official trade relations with China, one had to be a tributary state; that is, one had to pay tribute. This was something most shoguns, and Japanese emperors alike, refused to do, instead insisting upon their equality with the Chinese emperor, or their exclusion from the Sinocentric system entirely.

In English

In present-day English, the "emperor of Japan" refers to the tennô 天皇, the monarch who has reigned over (but not necessarily ruled) Japan for virtually all of recorded history. However, it only became standard in English sometime after Perry's visit in 1853. Indeed, the formal letters from US Presidents Fillmore and Pierce carried to Japan by Commodore Perry and Townsend Harris respectively all used the term "emperor" to refer to the shogun.[7]

The 16th-century Jesuits more commonly used terms such as "nobleman," "king," or "prince," to refer to the tennô, but hardly ever the term "emperor," if at all. Borrowing or imitating Japanese terms, they also often used terms such as mikado and dairi 内裏, the latter literally referring to the imperial palace, in much the same way we might today say "Washington" or "the White House" to mean the President of the United States. (The "emperor" doll in the Doll Festival set is still called the dairi today.)

The Jesuits also called the daimyô "kings," "dukes," or "princes," which was hardly a misuse of the European term, as the daimyô, especially in Kyushu where the Jesuits were first active, were independent rulers who really ruled their territory and fought each other. The tennô was described by St. Francis Xavier as the hereditary ruler of the whole country, but one who was no longer obeyed.[11]

Will Adams, an Englishman who arrived in Japan in 1600, referred to Tokugawa Ieyasu, who became the first Tokugawa shogun in 1603, as "king" in a 1611 letter to his wife, and as "emperor" in a pamphlet of the same date. "Emperor" in Europe referred to someone who ruled over kings, so in the latter he was clearly indicating that Ieyasu ruled over all the various "kings" (i.e. the daimyô) who Europeans knew existed in Japan. The Englishmen who arrived in Japan with the East India Company in 1613 also referred to the then-retired shogun Ieyasu and the shogun Hidetada as "emperor," both in public and private.

Richard Cocks mentioned the "dairi" in 1616, and Engelbert Kaempfer, who came to the Dutch settlement in 1690, described Japan as possessing "two Emperors at the same time, the one secular, the other ecclesiastical."[7] Thus, he does refer to the tennô in Kyoto as the "Ecclesiastical Hereditary Emperor," though more frequently his use of the term "emperor" (as in "Embassy to the Emperor's court") referred to the shogun, in Edo.

One sometimes comes across statements to the effect that during the Edo period the secretive Japanese told the Dutch that the shogun was the emperor, hiding the existence of the real emperor, but such statements are misconceptions deriving from a lack of familiarity with the history of early Japanese-European contact. It is clear that the Europeans, though they knew of the tennô, chose "emperor" as the word most suitable to their minds to describe the shogun.

Today, the Emperor of Japan is the only reigning figure in the world to be called "emperor." Historian Ben-Ami Shillony, citing the fact that the tennô scarcely had any political power for the majority of the period 1192-1867, and that outside of 1895-1945 Japan has never possessed an "empire," argues that the English-language term "emperor" is inapplicable. He suggests instead that tennô be used as is, just as foreign terms such as shah, tsar, sultan, and Dalai Lama are employed in English. There is considerable validity to this argument, as it pertains to the contemporary situation.[7] However, as discussed above, there is great historical significance to Japan's possessing an "emperor," rather than a "king," in its hierarchical position in the region, relative to the Emperor of China and the Kings of Korea and Ryûkyû. So long as these terms are to be used for other states in the region, there is an argument to be made for the use of such terms for Japan as well.


  1. Takashi Fujitani, Splendid Monarchy, UC Press (1998), 180.
  2. Evelyn Rawski, Early Modern China and Northeast Asia: Cross-Border Perspectives, Cambridge University Press (2015), 123.
  3. Anne Walthall, "Introduction: Tracking People in the Past," Walthall (ed.), The Human Tradition in Modern Japan, Scholarly Resources, Inc. (2002), 1, 3.
  4. "The Constitution of Japan," official website of the Prime Minister of Japan and his Cabinet. Accessed 10/10/2016.
  5. Watanabe Hiroshi, A History of Japanese Political Thought, 1600-1901, International House of Japan (2012), 52.
  6. Timon Screech, Obtaining Images, University of Hawaii Press (2012), 169.
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 7.4 Ben-Ami Shillony, "Restoration, Emperor, Diet, Prefecture, or: How Japanese Concepts were Mistranslated into Western Languages," Collected Writings of Ben-Ami Shillony, Synapse (2000), 69-71.
  8. Albert M. Craig, The Heritage of Japanese Civilization, Second Edition, Prentice Hall (2011), 17.
  9. Amino Yoshihiko, Alan Christy (trans.), Rethinking Japanese History, Center for Japanese Studies, University of Michigan (2012), 247.
  10. Luke Roberts, Performing the Great Peace, University of Hawaii Press (2012), 169.
  11. Francis Xavier, quoted in Cooper, 41.


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