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Japanese Emperors

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Japan is one of the only nations today which still has an emperor. In this lesson, we are going to explore the history of this esteemed title and see how it has changed over time.

The Emperor of Japan

There aren't many monarchs in the world today. Most monarchies have been dissolved, so there are only a relative few nations that still recognize such an authoritative figure. There are also very few people who can claim to be able to directly trace their ancestry back over 2,000 years. Both of these rarities are available in Japan. Japan boasts the oldest continuous chain of hereditary emperors in the world, representing a lineage that stretches for millennia.

The First Emperor

The earliest history of Japan, as with most places, is shrouded in mystery and legend. Archaeologists agree that humans had inhabited the islands of Japan by roughly 30,000 BCE, but the identity of these people is contested. However, Japanese lore is pretty clear on this point. The Japanese people were brought to the islands by a legendary ruler named Emperor Jimmu, a descendant of the sun goddess Amaterasu. Tradition holds the dates of Jimmu's reign between roughly 660-585 BCE.

Emperor Jimmu
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The legend of Emperor Jimmu is very important to our understanding of the role of the Japanese emperor. For one, the emperor is a semi-divine figure who traces his lineage back to Amaterasu, the sun goddess. This means that the emperor is not really a political title. It's a religious and cultural one. Historically, the emperor controlled the cultural life of Japan and was integral in ceremonies associated with the Japanese religion of Shinto. The emperor was often only minimally involved in politics. Still, he was the symbol of the nation and revered above all others.

The Yamato Period

Jimmu's lineage is strictly recorded in Japanese traditions. However, we first find historical evidence of Japanese rulers a bit later in the Yamato or Kofun period of Japanese history (roughly 346- 538 CE). In this time, the various tribes of Japan were unified under a single political state with its capital in the Yamato Province.

The first ruler of the Yamato period was Emperor Ojin. Ojin is technically the last of the ''legendary emperors,'' or those who cannot be completely historically confirmed. It was Ojin's son, Emperor Nintoku, who is most often treated as the first historically-confirmed emperor of Japan. Nintoku may have been responsible for some of the first large-scale engineering projects of Japan, indicating a high level of social organization and a fully developed position of authority.

Emperor Nintoku
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The Rise of Clan Power

The emperors of the Yamato period are recognized by historians, but many dates and events in their lives are questioned. However, by the 6th century, record keeping in Japan aligns more closely with other historical accounts. While the emperors of Japan in this era were powerful, it's important to remember that they weren't strictly political figures. As Japan became a more centralized, political state, real political and military power fell into the hands of powerful advisors to the emperor.

The first real example of this begins with the Fujiwara clan, a family of advisors who came to control Japan's political and military actions starting in the 7th century. Yet, they still had to get the emperor's permission to act due to his divine authority. This made overthrowing the emperor unwise. The Fujiwara would establish a precedent of using the emperor's authority to accomplish their own goals.

The role of the emperor was refined further in the 12th century, when the traditional clan-based advisors to the emperor were replaced by powerful warlords called Shoguns. The Shoguns became the new power in Japan, fighting massive military campaigns in the emperor's name and accompanied by an elite caste of educate, courtly warrior called the samurai.

The Modern Emperor

For most of Japanese history, this was the basic trend. The emperor was a ceremonial figurehead whose decisions were largely influenced by his advisors. This changed in the 19th century. As Japan became more influenced by outside powers, the emperor re-fashioned himself in European style. In 1889, Japan adopted a constitution under Emperor Mutsuhito, commonly called by his posthumous name Emperor Meiji. In this era, called the Meiji Restoration, Japan started to become an industrialized nation built on European lines. It had a constitution, a parliament, and a prime minister. The emperor's political powers were formally written out, and he began acting more like a European emperor by engaging in territorial wars against Korea and Russia.

Emperor Meiji
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