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The Emperor: Why is he a Big Deal?

By Jessica Hutchison

Japan has an emperor. Who exactly is he, and why is he important? Today, I’m going to try and explain that.

The concept of an emperor is pretty foreign to most Americans. I mean, America has had some pretty close ties to monarchs before, but we all know that ended pretty badly. We could try to compare the office of President to the emperor, but they really aren’t the same. Besides, Japan also has a Prime Minister, which is much closer to the idea of a President.


So let’s dig in with some history on Japanese emperors.


How The Emperor Got His Street Cred


Emperors became a thing in Japan a really long time ago. They took the idea from China, because, let’s be real, they took a lot of ideas from China. One of the earliest really famous emperors was Emperor Jimmu (or Jim, as I like to call him). He’s kind of credited with making Japan its own country.


The fact that these emperors popped up was really important for Japan to become a thing. Before, the island was full of smaller clans and tribes that kind of kept to themselves. Then the Yamato stepped up and said “Hey, we’re in charge, and here’s a record we had commissioned that proves it.” And everyone went with it, because how do you argue with something someone wrote?


The thing that was written was the Nihon Shoki, one of the earliest records of Japanese history. Of course, it was probably skewed in favor of the Yamato, but it’s still seen as a very important part of Japanese history. The Nihon Shoki also gave the Yamato clan all of their credibility, claiming that they were descendants of the Sun Goddess Amaterasu.


If you don’t know about Shinto, Amaterasu is kind of a big deal. She’s the main deity of the religion.


So, by claiming to be related to her, the Yamato gained all sorts of respect. China did this with their emperors too. Nothing like being divine to give you power over people.


The fact that they were related to Amaterasu is really important, guys. The Imperial Family always showed that they worshipped Amaterasu piously. One generation had a princess who decided to build a really nice shrine for the Goddess. Ise Shrine was built, and there has always been someone in the royal family who has been assigned to take care of it. It is said to hold Amaterasu’s sacred relics, such as her mirror. Ise Shrine is an imperial shrine, and is closely associated with the Emperor and his family.


For most history, the Emperor has claimed to be descended from a literal goddess. This definitely affected how people viewed him. I mean, if you knew the leader of your country was a deity, wouldn’t you look at them a bit differently?


This all changed at the end of World War II. During the war, people still believed he was divine. That led to some pretty strong nationalism. When General MacArthur showed up, that changed. The emperor was forced to renounce his divinity, which caused a pretty big stir in the country.


Nowadays, Japan still has an emperor, but it’s definitely more of a constitutional monarchy sort of position. The National Diet and the Prime Minister have the real power in the government.


Why The Emperor Was Only Sometimes Top Dog


I can actually only think about maybe two times in Japanese history when the emperor had any sort of real power. Of course, the early emperors (and empresses) did, because they were the government at that point. They were more of traditional monarchs who would rule completely. But that didn’t last.


The Heian Period definitely had a different view of emperors. During this time, the emperors were very young and would only rule for a few years. While they ruled, they were basically controlled by their families and the retired emperor (because they were eight-year-olds). A retired emperor would have a lot more freedom, while still having a lot of political sway.


So instead of being ran by the emperor completely, it’s more like things were ran by whatever part of the court was influencing him.


Then things really changed when the shogun became a thing.


This is when the emperor was kind of pushed aside, because now the shogun was in charge. The shogun was a military leader, and Japan was ruled by different shogunates from the late 12th century through the late 19th century. That’s 700 years of no one caring what the emperor has to say.


That rubbed a lot of people the wrong way, especially in the late 1800s when foreigners (Americans) started knocking on the door with heavily armed warships. A lot of people decided it was time the emperor be in charge again, so they overthrew the shogunate and put the emperor back on top. This is called the Meiji Restoration.


The emperor kept his power until, as I said before, after World War II. Besides being forced to renounce his divinity, a new constitution was created that made him more of a figurehead. And that’s how it’s been ever since.


The Emperor Today


Japan is the only country today who refers to their monarch as an “emperor.” He’s still really important to the culture, and people follow the imperial family just as closely as any other royal family. The emperor’s birthday is even a national holiday.


The current emperor has caused quite a stir lately, as it just became legal for him to retire. There’s been talk of him retiring as early as 2019, which isn’t surprising when you consider his age. Emperors have not been allowed to legally retire for quite some time, so this is a big step for Japan.


If the emperor retires, it will actually start a new era in Japan, as the emperors since the Meiji Restoration have all named their eras. Of course, Japan goes with the traditional calendar we use, but they will also refer to years by the imperial names. So this year is 2018, but in Japan it could also be Heisei 30 (because this is the 30th year the Heisei Emperor has been on the throne). If you’re traveling to Japan anytime soon, it is probably a good idea to learn these for important years in your life, such as when you were born. Some people are more traditional and don’t care for the western dates. Even the currency has the mint dates in these imperial dates.


Hopefully, this has helped you understand a bit more about Japan’s emperor. If you’d like to learn more about Japanese history, check out the post “Japanese History in About Six Minutes” where I break down all of the time periods into little bite-sized pieces.


Photo by the Japan times:

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