Emperor of Japan

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Depending on the time and government structure, the Emperor of Japan has been principally a religious figure, a ceremonial head of state, or a head of state with major but hidden authority. There is considered to be a single Yamato Dynasty,[1] beginning seventy-four generations ago under the semi-divine Jimmu.

The nature of the Emperor is intertwined with Shinto, a set of religious practices translated as "the way of the gods" to distinguish it from Buddhism. It began as animistic, in which the highest temporal leaders also had the highest spiritual power. One of the early challenges of Japan was to merge the native animism with both the role of the Chinese secular leader, beginning in the Taika Reform of 645.[2]

The Emperor of Japan has been Naruhito since 1st May 2019.


Names are sometimes confusing; the Emperor has a personal name, but, a name is given to the reign, which may become the better-known posthumous name of the Emperor. For example, Mutsuhito was the human emperor during what became called the Meiji Restoration, so Mutsuhito is also called the Meiji Emperor in the Meiji Era. His grandson, Hirohito, is also called the Showa Emperor for his reign, ironically translated as "heavenly peace". "Meiji emperor" is used in practice in Japan but "Hirohito" is better known elsewhere.

Groups of imperial, or sometimes by the "servant" but actually head of government, the shogun, reigns have also been called periods, usually named for the location of the government, sometimes by an ancient name:

It has been suggested, from a perspective of Japanese history, that Douglas MacArthur established himself in the role of shogun to Hirohito. [4], but this is something of an oversimplification. In 1945, the Japanese people had no experience either of being a conquered people or a democracy. The actual power of the Emperor has waxed and waned, but for much of Japanese history, his authority was delegated although he had spiritual power — which might or might not be accessible outside the royal court. [5] The theoretical authority of the emperor, especially from 1868 to 1945, has been controversial, as in the organ theory of government. Some Emperors, especially Hirohito, appear to have taken a significant behind-the-scenes operational role. Akihito and his descendants, however, are purely ceremonial.

Controlling foreign and military policy, therefore, is most significant with Hirohito and Mutsohito; Yoshihito was ill and could take little role. The Japanese concept is very different than the western one of civilian control of the military, as that implies the legitimacy of control deriving from the democratic consent of the governed.


The traditional first emperor, Jimmu, seventy-three generations before Hirohito, is considered of of divine origin.[6]

Under the Tokugawa Shogunate

Emperors after the fall of the Tokugawa Shogunate

Personal name Life Date of rule Reign name
Mutsohito 1852-1912 1867-1912 Meiji
Yasohito 1879-1926 1912-1926 Taisho
Hirohito 1901-1989 1926-1989 Showa
Akihito b. 1933 1989-2019 Heisei
Naruhito b. 1960 2019-present Reiwa

Mutsohito's authority

Hirohito's authority

It had been the immediate postwar position of Hirohito that he opposed World War Two in the Pacific, but, "as a constitutional monarch under a constitutional government, I could not avoid approving the decision of the Tojo government at the time of approving hostilities...actually I was virtually a prisoner and helpless." Biographer Herbert Bix responded that these statements were "apt symbols of the secrecy, myth and gross misrepresentation that surrounded his entire life."[7]


  1. David Bergamini (1971), Japan's Imperial Conspiracy, Morrow,p. 190
  2. Edwin Reischauer (1977), The Japanese, Harvard University Press, ISBN 0674471768, pp. 42-46
  3. Richard Hooker, Heian Japan, Ancient Japan, Washington State University
  4. Sterling Seagrave and Peggy Seagrave (1999), The Yamato Dynasty: the secret history of Japan's imperial family, Broadway Books, ISBN 07677904066, p. 1
  5. Karel von Wolferen (1989), The Enigma of Japanese Power: People and Politics in a Stateless Nation, Alfred A. Knopf, ISBN 0394577695, pp. 27-28
  6. Jerrold M. Packard (1989), Sons of Heaven: A Portrait of the Japanese Monarchy, Macmillan, ISBN 0020232810, pp. 23-28
  7. Herbert P. Bix (2001), Hirohito and the making of modern Japan, Harper Perennial, ISBN 978-0060931308, p. 3