The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary






Emperor of Japan

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

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

Although the role of the Emperor 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, the main function of the Emperor was merely to authorize and to legitimate those in power for most of the last millenium. Under Japan's present constitution, the emperor is a largely ceremonial figurehead constitutional monarch (see Politics of Japan).

The current Emperor is His Majesty The 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), which is located on the site of the 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. Even a quick perusal of a list of Japanese Emperors (such as the one below) shows that some of the Emperors cited 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 the dating the reigns of emperors is the standard way of referencing Japanese history, even today.



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 head of state. Efforts in the 1950s by conservative powers to amend the constitution to explicitly name the Emperor as head of state were rejected. However, the Emperor performs the diplomatic functions normally associated with a head of state and is recognized as such by foreign powers.


Although the Emperor has been a symbol of continuity with the past, the amount of power exercised by the Emperor of Japan has varied considerably across Japanese history. The earliest emperors recorded in Kojiki and Nihonshoki, such as the Emperor Jimmu, are considered today to have no historical existence. Historians think the first emperor who exists historically was the Emperor Ojin but his date are uncertain. Those two books states the imperial house keep the lineage connection continously but today some historians doubt the possibility some ancient emperors who were stated as descendant of Ojin emperor had no actual geneologic tie between their precedence. The members of the imperial house of Japan rarely marry with members of royal family of other countries. According to the chronicles of Japan II (續日本紀), Emperor Kammu's mother(Takano-no niigasa) was a 200 year after decendant of King Muryeong of Baekje, Korea. This is an only one exception through the chronicles of Japan and the II. Takano's clan was low-class noble in Japan so that Kammu was not a prospective person for tenno. Kammu and his father became tenno by power game between clans. From the 1100s to 1868, the real power was in the hands of the shoguns, who nevertheless were in ceremonial theory always successively invested with their authority by the emperor. When Iberian explorers first contacted Japan (see Nanban period), they likened the relationship between emperor and shogun to that of the European pope (godly) and emperor (earthly).

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 who soldiers were indoctrinated to fight and die in the name of. The Emperor himself was hidden from sight however, and his actual role during this period is disputed, but 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 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 explicity 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 language and cultural difference 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".

Various English dictionaries indicate that the term Mikado (御門/帝/みかど), which literally means "exalted gate", is used in English to refer to the Emperor of Japan; some indications are that it 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/godking". Sumeramikoto was also used in Old Japanese.

There are three Japanese words that describes the concept of 'emperor'; 'tennō' (天皇)is used specifically to describe Japanese emperor, 'Kōtei' (皇帝, literally, the emperor of emperors) is used primarily to describe a Chinese emperor and a foreign emperor, 'Teiō' (帝王, literally, the emperor of kings) is used to describe foreign emperor as well but never on a Chinese emperor. Some scholars point out that use of 'ten-(天heaven)' was, in the relation to the Chinese concept of 'Tentei' (天帝, "heaven's emperor"), the god in the sky, meant to show that tennou's duty was not limited to political or military duty but of spiritual and religious one as well.

Traditional East Asians generally think it discourteous to call a person of noble rank by 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 Jimmu, Kammu 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 Kinjo). Summarised on the above, the current Emperor is not called by the current era name: the era would become his posthumous name. But today this custom tends to be loose, as the below. In English, the recent emperors are called by their personal names according to Western convention. As explained above, in Japanese it 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 List of Japanese Emperors

See also


External links

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