Strange Politics: The Emperor of Japan

Crown Prince Naruhito of Japan, who is set to take the throne as Emperor on Tuesday. Image by Michel Temer.

The current Emperor of Japan, who is 85 years old and has reigned since 1989, is set to abdicate the throne on April 30 in favor of his son, Crown Prince Naruhito. On his accession, the crown prince will become the 126th member of his dynasty to reign over the world’s oldest monarchy. All emperors of Japan, including the soon-to-reign Naruhito, trace their descent to the Shinto goddess of the sun Amaterasu through her descendant Jimmu, who is said in legends to have become the first emperor of Japan in 660 BC. Of course, modern historians and archaeologists tend not to believe such things, but have still found evidence that the Japanese imperial line dates back at least as early as the Kofun period around the 5th century AD – which still means the line of Japanese emperors goes back more than 1500 years!

How is this possible? Well, Japan’s emperors play a very unique role in Japanese society that has no equivalent in any other country. Indeed, it is only us Westerners who have dubbed them with the title “Emperor”, as a way to roughly conceptualize their status and position. The actual Japanese title is Tennō, meaning “heavenly sovereign”. The Japanese language refers to foreign emperors as “kōtei“, in order to distinguish them.

The Tennō reigns from the “takamikura” or Chrysanthemum Throne and during his reign, he has no name; he is just the Tennō. Many Western news media outlets and reference works will call the current monarch “Emperor Akihito”, referring to His Imperial Majesty by the name he used as a prince, but to the Japanese this would be considered quite disrespectful. Having said that, the traditional Japanese calendar divides Japanese history into “eras” that are each given a name, and a tradition has arisen that a new era name is selected upon the succession of a new emperor and that former emperors are referred to by the era name of their reign. Thus, Tuesday will be the first day of the “Reiwa” era, and the current emperor will then be referred to as “former Emperor Heisei”.

The Tennō is more than a reigning monarch, but the head of the Shinto religion as well. He is in charge of the three most sacred objects in Shinto, which are presented to him upon taking the throne: the Sacred Mirror that Shinto worshipers believe lured Amaterasu out of hiding, the Sacred Sword that her brother, the storm god Susanoo, pulled from the corpse of a dragon, and the Sacred Jewel that Amaterasu gifted her mortal descendants when she sent them to Earth. Indeed, as the role of the Tennō is considered sacred, he only very rarely speaks in public, which means that when he does speak, his words carry quite a lot of weight. The Tennō is so revered in Japanese society that the country’s very national anthem is a poem singing his praises.

Having said all of that, one would think that the Tennō is an extremely powerful figure in Japan. At least politically, however, nothing could be further from the truth. Indeed, from a constitutional standpoint, he is the least powerful monarch in the world. See, while most constitutional monarchs, like Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom, legally retain some important political powers such as the ability to veto laws, appoint the Prime Minister and other important officials, declare war, command the armed forces, and ratify peace treaties, Japan’s constitution explicitly rips those powers away from the Emperor. The 1947 Constitution of Japan describes the Emperor as “The symbol of the state and the unity of the people”, and specifically instructs him to only exercise his functions and duties in accordance with the instructions of Japan’s democratically-elected politicians. For example, while the Queen may be theoretically free to choose whatever Prime Minister she wants and is only bound by long-standing tradition and custom to name Parliament’s preferred candidate, the Emperor is bound by the text of the constitution to choose the Prime Minister that the Diet picks for him. The Emperor’s political role has been described as a “rubber stamp”, but I think a more apt description might be something akin to a human flag. Just as a national flag is an object with immense symbolic value for a country, the Emperor is a person with immense symbolic value for Japan.

Why is this the case, though? Well…

Let’s just say a certain date that will live in infamy was involved.

The actual, on-the-ground political power of the Tennō has waxed and waned many times over the centuries due to a variety of historical factors. In the 7th century AD, the Emperor Kōtoku implemented a number of political reforms known as the Taika Reform, modelling Japan’s government on the Chinese model. At this point, we can call Kōtoku a true emperor, as he was assuming powers similar to the Chinese emperor. However, by the Heian period (AD 794-1185), the Fujiwara clan were actually running the show in the Emperor’s name. This was in part due to the fact that the Fujiwara frequently intermarried with the imperial family, and many emperors at this time had Fujiwara mothers who acted as regents for their sons. Toward the end of the Heian period, though, the Fujiwara’s power declined and civil war broke out between rival clans for power. This anarchic phase ended with the victory of Minamoto no Yoritomo, who seized power and became Japan’s first shogun. For centuries thereafter, the shoguns ruled Japan as military dictators of a feudal society. This is the age people think of when they think of historical Japan, with its castles, samurai, and ninja.

In theory, the shogun was appointed by the Tennō and ruled in his name, and the Tennō could dismiss a shogun that displeased him. In practice, however, this was very much not the case, as the Emperor Go-Daigo learned the hard way in the 14th century when he tried to do exactly that and ended up causing another civil war. Power remained firmly in the hands of the shoguns until 1853.

Why 1853? Well, that was the year that an expedition by the U.S. Navy led by Commodore Matthew Perry arrived in Japan on a mission to convince the isolationist Japanese to open up their ports to trade with the United States. The massive steam-powered gunboats armed to the teeth with powerful cannons shocked and frightened the Japanese, who now saw how far behind the west they had become technologically. This precipitated a political conflict that led to another civil war between factions supporting the shogun and emperor, with the imperial faction (with some British backing) winning the day in the end.

This led to the Meiji Restoration in 1867, with the Emperor Meiji deposing the last shogun and re-establishing imperial rule for the first time in nearly a millennium. In 1890, Japan’s first constitution took effect, establishing a constitutional monarchy modeled on those of Europe at the time. While this constitution allowed for some limited democracy through the election of a Diet with legislative power, it also preserved the emperor’s role as an active political player with immense power. The emperor’s power was further magnified through the establishment of State Shinto, a form of the Shinto religion that was infused with political ideology, most notably including the belief that the emperor was more than just a descendant of Amterasu but a divine being in his own right who should be worshiped as such.

In the 1930’s, a series of militaristic, imperialistic prime ministers allied with war-hungry military commanders took power and launched a campaign to conquer China. This led to the United States imposing an oil embargo on Japan, to which the Japanese retaliated by bombing Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. During World War II, the regime justified its actions through the lens of State Shinto, holding that the world should know the benefits of the emperor’s divine rule and that it was glorious to die for the emperor. When Japan lost the war, the victorious Allies had to decide what to do about this imperial cult. Some called for the abolition of the Japanese emperor’s role entirely, or at least for then-Emperor Shōwa (known in the west by the name he had as as a prince, Hirohito) to be deposed. Ultimately, the decision was made to do neither, but instead to have the emperor publicly renounce his divinity and for Japan to be made to adopt a new constitution that stripped away all his political power.

In a way, then, the role of the Tennō has gone back to the way it was during the shogunate, only instead of the Tennō being a symbolic puppet of a military dictator, he is the symbolic puppet of a modern democracy. It’s amusing to me how things have come full-circle with a modern twist like that. It just goes to show that everywhere in the world, and throughout all of history, politics is always very strange.