While Japan does not have the oldest civilization in the world, the line of the Imperial Family goes back to 660 BC making it the oldest inherited monarchy in the world. The earliest Emperors and Empresses are legendary, meaning that their existence is not 100% certain. It is only from around the 6th century there is factual evidence of the Emperor being a real historical figure and the current Emperor has descended from him. Let’s have a look at the history of the Imperial Family of Japan, and see where they are today.
Shinto Gods and Emperor Jimmu
If you look at the family tree of the Japanese Imperial Family, you will see that the first 3 generations are actually Shinto gods. Emperor Jimmu descended from the son and daughter of two different sea-dragon gods, and he actually only received his title as the Emperor of Japan 1000 years after he died. He was born in Kyushu and set out to conquer lands in Honshu for the gods.
The emperor marched to Yamato (what is now Kansai) which had plenty of fertile lands and fought to displace the ruler in that region at the time, Naga-Sune-Hiko. Jimmu and his army didn’t succeed the first time. He then decided to retreat and attack Yamato from the other side by marching through what are now the Wakayama and Mie prefectures. With some celestial help, Emperor Jimmu managed to defeat the ruler of Yamato and started his own peaceful ruling period that lasted for 76 years.
The Imperial Family Line
After Emperor Jimmu, there was a succession of sons that inherited the title from their fathers, but very little is known about most of them until Emperor Sujin who was on the throne from 97 BC until 30 BC according to some literature. Emperor Sujin was the 10th in line, and while his existence has not been 100% confirmed, some historians think he is the first Emperor of Japan that existed for sure. This Emperor was supposedly the first who tried to have a more serious administration in the country by having a census and improving tax systems.
The 12th Emperor’s existence is still debatable, but he is said to have had many children, some say it could have been as many as 80. Some Emperors that came after him didn’t have any children, like the 22nd Emperor. In this case, the Emperor would name sons or grandsons of brothers or uncles as heirs so the lineage would continue. It was only from the 29th Emperor, though, that historians agree that they actually existed.
Japanese Emperors During Shogunates
From the moment Japan became more organized in the 6th century, the Imperial Family and court have played an important role in Japanese politics. It is important to remember that the role of the Imperial Family itself has always been merely symbolic albeit important. The real political power, however, was always in the hands of a different family. During the Heian period, it was the Fujiwara Clan that had the real power, and after that, it was the Taira clan.
Members of the Fujiwara clan intermarried with the Imperial Family often to keep the bonds strong. The people in power have always upheld the notion that the regular people have to respect the authority of the Imperial Family who descended from Shinto gods, and do whatever was required to keep them happy. Of course, it was the interests of the clan in power that was mainly served by this loyalty of the people to the Imperial Family.
The Kamakura Period
From the 12th century, military governments came to power in Japan. It started when the Taira clan was defeated by the Minamoto clan who then seized power as shogun and moved the political capital from Kyoto to Kamakura (near Tokyo). The Imperial Family stayed in Kyoto, and any power the court had, became symbolic.
When the Minamoto’s were defeated by the Ashikaga clan, the power shifted back again to Kyoto but it was the warlords who kept total control over Japan’s politics. A period of unrest started with the law of the sword above anything else. This violent period only ended when the Tokugawa clan established a new shogunate in Edo in the early 17th century. So once again, the balance of power shifted to the eastern part of Honshu away from Kyoto.
During the previous shogunates, the Imperial Family and the court lost some of their power compared to before. At those times, the attention was strongly focused on the warlords and their samurai. During the Edo period, the Imperial court in Kyoto performed mainly religious duties that were important to the shogun in Edo. But it wasn’t until the end of the Tokugawa rule in the mid-19th century that the Imperial Family made a good come-back.
As the name implies, the Meiji Restoration was a time during which the Emperor was restored to his former glory. It was also the time from which the name of a period became the posthumous name of the Emperor who reigned at that time. People needed a national identity and using the Imperial Family to establish that was a handy move for the people in power at that time.
It was a time of rapid modernization after a long period of relative peace, calm, and little modern development. Not everyone agreed with the decision to let the foreigners in and get rid of the old in favor of the new. That is why it was important to establish the new power swift and strong. It is also very convenient to have the ability to mobilize large numbers of people under the ‘will of the Emperor’.
Japan started branching out quickly to catch up on the West and protect its interests in the region and modernized its industries very fast. It was not Emperor Meiji himself who ruled, but the group of advisors around him who had their own agenda. Emperor Meiji himself didn’t truly mingle in politics, he was more occupied with writing poetry in waka or haiku format.
The Emperor had 15 children, but unfortunately, many of them died soon after birth. Because the Imperial line is the result of a lot of inbreeding, Emperor Meiji had many genetic issues that were also passed onto his offspring.
Emperor Taisho was Emperor Meiji’s 5th child and the first one to survive into adulthood. He became Emperor in 1912 and was on the throne until his death in 1926. Just like his father, Emperor Taisho had some genetic defects. Moreover, he suffered from a bad bout of meningitis as a child which left him with some mental and physical defects. He was often staying at one of the Imperial Villas to spare his health. He wasn’t able to finish middle school. Emperor Taisho did, however, have an aptitude for languages and he spoke a bit of Chinese, French, and Korean.
He was married to a daughter of the Fujiwara clan who had great influence in Japanese politics for a long time at age 15, and they had 4 sons together. At the beginning of the 20th century, the military in Japan grew ever stronger. This meant that Emperor Taisho had to perform some military ceremonial duties before he became an Emperor. He even traveled to Korea around this time, being the first heir to the throne to ever leave Japan.
When he became Emperor in 1912, he was still undertaking official duties. In the years after his enthronement, however, his mental condition didn’t improve and people started making fun of him. His oldest son, the later Emperor Showa, took over his duties from 1921. Steadily, the Diet (Japanese parliament) became more powerful as there was no strong Emperor. Emperor Taisho died in 1926, which is when the longest-reigning Japanese Emperor officially took the throne.
Emperor Showa Pre-War
The Showa era, which is when Emperor Showa was on the throne for 62 years. Emperor Showa is quite known in the West, under his living name of Hirohito. Emperor Showa was the first Emperor to make state visits to Europe and aged only 18 he became the country’s regent. When he took the throne, Japan was in tumultuous times financially and politically. Although he did give the OK for several attacks on China in the 1930s, Emperor Showa later said that the chiefs of the navy and army and with the prime minister hadn’t been truthful in their predictions of peace after attacking China.
Emperor Showa did actively mingle in some war business during WW2 and seemed to stimulate Japanese war efforts. Experts don’t agree on whether he was correctly briefed on Japan’s failure from 1942 onwards. Still, some say that he knew exactly what was going on and others say that he didn’t get truthful information from outside and thus couldn’t help not stepping down on time.
Especially from 1944, the situation for Japan became dire, but almost nobody (including the Emperor) wanted to surrender. It was not until the Soviets declared war on Japan in August that Emperor Showa decided that it was time to surrender. The radio broadcast that followed was a very special moment in history. This was the first time that most of the Japanese people heard the voice of their Emperor.
There is no consensus about whether Emperor Showa was directly responsible for his unwillingness to surrender even when things looked very dire for Japan. Some say that he was nothing but a powerless figurehead being manipulated by other people. After the war, the Americans stripped the Emperor of his divinity. They did, however, keep it vague on purpose in order to use the Emperor in order to get the Japanese people behind their plans.
Emperor Showa Post-War
After the war, Emperor Showa made a big effort to build up Japan’s diplomatic image again. He succeeded mainly in the US, but it proved a bit more difficult in Europe where some of his official visits were marked by protests. The remaining long period of his reign was characterized by great economic growth and general prosperity for Japan. This felt like a well-deserved break after the hard years of the war and the rebuilding that followed.
Emperor Showa’s stance on the Yasukuni Shrine showed some repentance of what happened during the war. He famously boycotted the shrine ever since the main priest enshrined the souls of war criminals there. His son Emperor Akihito continued this boycott. Emperor Showa died in 1989 and was succeeded by his son in 1990.
Emperor Akihito & Empress Michiko
Emperor Emeritus Akihito was born in 1933 as the 5th child and first son of Emperor Showa. Unlike the Emperors that came before him, he did not become an army officer at the request of his father. He was enthroned at age 56 and wanted to be a different kind of Emperor. In contrast to all the ones before him, as he sought to be closer to the people. He broke with tradition more often during his life. For starters, his marriage was not met by the approval of his mother.
His wife Michiko was a commoner and had a Roman Catholic background to make matters worse. Conservative groups were also not happy with the marriage. Emperor Akihito, on the other hand, felt strongly about Michiko and decided to pursue her anyway. Michiko and her children had a difficult time with their mother-in-law and grandma, which made their life difficult at times.
Break From Tradition
Emperor Akihito made two more notable trips away from tradition. First, he declared that he feels a kinship with Koreans in 2001. The Imperial Family line is said to have descended partly from Korean lines, a theory that doesn’t please the conservative groups in Japan. And then in 2011, just after the disaster happened in Tohoku the Emperor and his wife visited victims of the disaster. The victims lived in temporary housing, and the Emperor and Empress wanted to encourage them and make them feel better. This is a rare event in itself, and they even kneeled to see eye to eye with the victims. This, again, has angered some conservative groups.
The last time he made an obvious break with tradition happened in 2019 when he abdicated the throne. An abdication hadn’t happened for the last 200 years. Many conservatives would have preferred him to reign until his death. But the Emperor has had enough and wanted to live out his final days in peace and quiet. His son and current Emperor Naruhito took over the throne.
Current Emperor Naruhito
On May 1st, 2019 people celebrated the start of a new year and a new era, the Reiwa era. Besides the regular (Western) calendar, in Japan, they also keep tabs of the time with a Japanese calendar. Each time a new Emperor ascends the throne, a new era starts. The name of the era is the same name as the Emperor will receive after he dies.
The names tend to have a beautiful meaning, and the word Reiwa literally means ‘peaceful harmony’. There have been some discussions about the Chinese characters’ interpretation, though. Emperor Naruhito was born in 1960 and had a relatively normal childhood. Being a baseball-fan and finishing a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in the subject of history his youth was like many others. He also did a homestay in Australia and studied English at Oxford. He met many European royalty members and became friendly with them.
A Difficult Time
Just like his father, Emperor Naruhito fell in love with a common girl. He met Masako during a social event that she attended as a student, and immediately fell for her. She was interested in him too, but the Imperial Household Agency did not approve which complicated things. The then still crown prince had to pursue her and ask her several times before she agreed to marry him.
Life didn’t become easy for both of them after marriage, as the pressure was on to produce an heir for the throne. While polygamy was normal in the Imperial Family until the Taisho period in order to have the possibility of many heirs, from the Showa period this system was abolished. After WW2 the Americans also wanted to make the Imperial Family a lot smaller than it used to be by having female members lose their status as a member of the Imperial Family.
Masako wasn’t doing well mentally because of the pressure, and conceiving was difficult. After a long road, they finally had a daughter in 2001, Princess Aiko, but because she was a girl the succession issue still was not solved. The law states that only a boy can succeed the throne in Japan, and there were talks of changing this law. Of course, the conservatives did not like this idea, and everyone was mainly relieved when a nephew was born in 2006 who will now succeed the throne.
This website announces any public duties that the Emperor and his wife may undertake.
Your Japan Tour
There are many places you can visit during your trip to Japan that are related to the Imperial Family; there are the famous Meiji Shrine and Imperial Palace in Tokyo, but Kyoto also has many old palaces, temples, and shrines that have a connection with the Japanese royals.
As seasoned Japan experts, we can help you create your perfect Japan tour including guides who can tell you all you want to know about the Imperial Family of Japan. Contact us to start planning your unforgettable holiday to this fascinating country. Japan is full of once-in-a-lifetime experiences, culture, history, nature, and delicious food!