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What you Need to Know about the Emperors of Japan

Blog > Languages > Japanese > The Great Japanese Emperors

If you are thinking about travelling to Japan or even expatriating yourself there, learning about the country’s History will help you tremendously in understanding the traditions, social structure and culture of Japan.

Not doing so will probably result in some misunderstandings and awkward moments when witnessing a certain ritual or doing, by accident, something the Japanese might consider rude.

The Role of the Japanese Emperor

While the country still has an Emperor, loved and respected throughout the country, he doesn’t hold any executive power.

The Emperor, according to the 1947 constitution, is still the head of State, but his duties are limited to purely ceremonial offices, much like the Queen of England, Elizabeth II.

The current occupant of the Chrysanthemum Throne is Emperor Akihito and is the 125th Emperor of Japan, making the Imperial family of Japan the longest reigning dynasty on Earth.

Although, as we will see, the Emperor has not always been the driving force behind the Japanese government through Japan’s History.

Occupying the throne since 1989, Akihito made public his intentions to abdicate in favour of his eldest son Naruhito, citing his age and recent health issues. The announcement caused quite a controversy in Japan. Indeed the last abdication dated from 1817. The national government and its parliament, the Diet, had to pass a special law that would authorise Akihito to step down.

The abdication is officially set to take place on the 30th of April 2019.

President Barack Obama participates in the welcome ceremony with their Majesties the Emperor and Empress of Japan, His Imperial Highness Crown Prince Naruhito and Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the Imperial Palace during his state visit to Japan in 2014.

A Constitutional Monarchy

Japan, just like the United Kingdom, is a constitutional monarchy and has been so since 1889 with the adoption of the Meiji constitution and the creation of Japan National Diet, Japan’s parliament, in 1890. At the time a constitutional-absolute monarchy, the Emperor lost all but ceremonial functions after World War II with the creation of the three separated branches of the government (executive, legislative and judicial).

The National Diet is a bicameral legislature, meaning it is composed of two different parliamentary Houses. The lower house is the House of Representatives and the upper house is the House of Councillors. The U.K.’s system is similar to the difference that in Japan both Houses are made up of members directly elected (the House of Lords in the U.K. is made up of appointed or hereditary members).

The current Cabinet is the 98th since the Meiji Period and is headed by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who started his fourth term as PM after the 2017 snap elections.

Japan’s PM Shinzo Abe meets UK’s PM Theresa May – By UK Prime Minister Office.

The Imperial History of Japan

Ancient and Classical Japan

While the oldest dynasty on Earth, the origin of the Imperial family are rooted in legends and stories that historians, to this day, can not corroborate.

Up until the 29th Emperor of Japan, Emperor Kinmei, only traditional dates were available meaning that factual dates for the first 1,200 years of the dynasty cannot be verified.

That period that lasted until 539, is often referred to as the Ancient Japan Period.

The beginning of Kinmei’s reign marked the start of Japan’s Classical Period which lasted until 1185 and the beginning of Medieval Japan.

This Classical Period was marked by meaningful political, artistic and social transformation largely due to Buddhism and Taoism making their way from China and Korea into Japanese society.

It is during that period that Japan began to be referred to as Nihon (日本), a term that is still in use today.

During that time the Emperor and the Imperial court were the main sources of the power through the country.

This status-quo would be broken in 1185 with the emergence of a new driving force in the country, the Shogun.

Minamoto no Yorimoto, became the first Shogun of Japan after defeating the Emperor.

Medieval Japan and Premodern Japan

In 1185, Minamoto no Yoritomo became the de-facto leader of Japan by ousting the Taira, the Imperial ruling family, away from Kyoto.

The rise the prominent Minamoto family was allowed by the disinterest the Imperial court had for ruling the country. They failed to recognise the establishment of a strong military order, one that will rule Japan for the next 700 years.

During that Medieval period, the Shogun, usually the head of the strongest family in the country held most if not all power in Japan. He would allocate fiefs to his most loyal servants and appoint them daimyos, governor of a province.

The Emperor tried and sometimes managed to regain power although always for a brief period of time.

The start of Medieval Japan was also the beginning of its military nobility known as samurais. That social class made entirely of professional soldier would yield power and fight to access the highest ranks and honour of the country.

Many different Shoguns and ruling clans succeeded one another during more than 400 years.

But starting around the end of the 15th century, a period of military conflict and political chaos spread over Japan. Known as the Sengoku (Age of Warring State) period, this social upheaval of Medieval Japan would last nearly 140 years.

Tokugawa Ieyasu founded the Tokugawa Shogunate that would bring peace and stability to Japan for more than 250 years.

Two great leaders would emerge from it, Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Those two daimyos would become the first and second “Great Unifier” of Japan.

Toyotomi Hideyoshi coming from a farmers family, started his career as a simple ashigaru (foot soldier) in the army of his soon to be mentor Oda Nobunaga who at the time was one of the most powerful lords of Japan.

Together they unified most of the main island of Japan, Honshu, by either negotiating or forcibly remove other daimyos in power.

Though neither of them accessed the rank of Shogun, they are considered, with Tokugawa Ieyasu, to be the men that would put Japan on the path to become a power to reckon with.

Tokugawa Ieyasu, another great warlord of this period and at times ally of Toyotomi and Oda, would end up going his own way and venture that he could access the ultimate title of Shogun of Japan.

In 1600, at the Battle of Sekigahara, which opposed forces loyal to Toyotomi Hideyoshi and all the clans that rallied behind Tokugawa, the latter would prevail and seize absolute power.

After the siege of Osaka and the elimination of the Toyotomi clan, the Tokugawa dynasty oversaw the longest period of peace and political stability that the country had ever known while reigning over 260 years.

For most of those 260 years, Japan and the Tokugawa Shogunate enforced the Sakoku policy. This isolationist foreign policy meant that very strict regulations of commerce and foreign relations were applied. The country kept flourishing relations with China but even Chinese traders and expatriates were secluded to the port of Nagasaki.

When Japanese started trading with Europeans, only Dutch people were allowed in Nagasaki.

Even Japanese citizens, soldiers and lords included, were forbidden to go overseas without the Shogunate’s permission under penalty of death.

Those strict laws were mainly installed to counter the growing influence of Spanish and Portuguese Catholic preachers, which the Shogunate saw as a disturbance of the country’s religious institution and peace.

It is only in March 1854, that the Shogun, forced by U.S. Commander Perry and his heavily armed shipped, had to resign himself to bring the country’s isolationism to an end. Following this gunboat diplomacy demonstration, Japan would sign treaties with many western countries, often considered unequal and the product of forced negotiations.

These signs of weakness would mark the end of the Tokugawa Shogunate.

Daguerreotype of Matthew Calbraith Perry, the US Navy Commander that would force Japan out of its isolationism.

The Meiji Restoration

Many daimyos realised that Japan was falling behind its western counterparts and decided that it was time to restore the Emperor and ensure that Japan would not let itself be dominated by foreign nations.

In 1866, two prominent clans would form an alliance known as the Satsuma-Choshu Alliance. Those two clans would lead the Imperial Restoration.

Samurais of the Chosyu clan, during the Boshin War period.

Following the death of Emperor Komei in 1867, his son Meiji ascended the throne. Shortly after, and under the pressure of other daimyos and the Emperor himself, the 15th and last Tokugawa Shogun, Tokugawa Yoshinobu, relinquished his power and “put his prerogatives at the Emperor’s disposal”.

The British and Japanese Empire as close as ever in 1906 when Prince Arthur of Connaught vested Emperor Meiji of Japan with the Order of the Garter.

This was effectively the Restoration of Imperial rule after almost 700 years of a second plan role.

Former daimyos’ domains were returned to the Emperor and became what is known today as Japan’s Prefecture.

It took a few years for all former samurai lords to come to term with the new order or to be defeated by the newly created Imperial Japanese Army, but by 1877 and the end of the Satsuma Rebellion, Japan was eventually at peace.

The Meiji restoration allowed Japan to enter the age of modernity. Through social reforms, economic changes and technologic advances, Japan quickly caught up with the Western nations that once looked down on the isolated Empire.

By 1905 the swift industrialisation and modernisation of the country meant that Japan was the strongest economic and military force in Asia. The country would maintain this status until the 1990’s, only then China caught up.

Today’s Japanese Unique Culture

Japan fascinates. Japan shocks. Japan amazes. One thing that Japan does not do is leave you indifferent. That is probably why 30 million tourists visit the country every year.

Japan’s past isolation also explains why it is one of the industrialized countries with the lowest percentage of foreign-born citizen. With only 1.9% of its population being born abroad, Japan is far from the U.K. (13.2%) and the U.S. (14.3%). Most of those naturalised citizens being long-term residents from Korea.

But roughly 15,000 Britons live in Japan with over 5,000 in Tokyo.

Today, every aspect of the codified life and culture of Japan finds its root in its rich History. Japanese cuisine is one of the examples that embodies it the most.

If you’re lucky enough to spend some time in a Ryokan, those traditional Japanese hot-spring inns, you will experience Washoku, the traditional Japanese cuisine. This food culture that has been shaped by centuries of social and economic changes, is so important in Japan that it has been registered as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Throughout this History, the one constant character that can be found since the beginning of Japan as an entity is the Emperor. It is probably why today, Japanese people consider him to be the ultimate embodiment of their culture and heritage.

The Anglo-Japanese Alliance was signed in 1902 and strengthened the relationship between the two empires.

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