Unlike most constitutional monarchies, the Emperor is not the nominal Chief Executive. Article 65 of the Constitution explicitly vests executive power in the Cabinet, of which the Prime Minister is the leader. The Emperor is also not the (ceremonial) commander-in-chief of the Japan Self-Defense Forces. The Japan Self-Defense Forces Act of 1954 also explicitly vests this role with the Prime Minister.
The Emperor's powers are limited only to important ceremonial functions. Article 4 of the Constitution stipulates that the Emperor "shall perform only such acts in matters of state as are provided for in the Constitution and he shall not have powers related to government." It also stipulates that "the advice and approval of the Cabinet shall be required for all acts of the Emperor in matters of state" (Article 3). Article 4 also states that these duties can be delegated by the Emperor as provided for by law.
While the Emperor formally appoints the Prime Minister to office, Article 6 of the Constitution requires him to appoint the candidate "as designated by the Diet", without specifically giving the Emperor the right to decline appointment.
Article 6 of the Constitution delegates the Emperor the following ceremonial roles:
- Appointment of the Prime Minister as designated by the Diet.
- Appointment of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court as designated by the Cabinet.
The Emperor's other duties are laid down in article 7 of the Constitution, where it is stated that the "Emperor with the advice and approval of the Cabinet, shall perform the following acts in matters of state on behalf of the people":
- Promulgation of amendments of the constitution, laws, cabinet orders, and treaties.
- Convocation of the Diet.
- Dissolution of the House of Representatives.
- Proclamation of general election of members of the Diet.
- Attestation of the appointment and dismissal of Ministers of State and other officials as provided for by law, and of full powers and credentials of Ambassadors and Ministers.
- Attestation of general and special amnesty, commutation of punishment, reprieve, and restoration of rights.
- Awarding of honors.
- Attestation of instruments of ratification and other diplomatic documents as provided for by law.
- Receiving foreign ambassadors and ministers.
- Performance of ceremonial functions.
Regular ceremonies of the Emperor with a constitutional basis are the Imperial Investitures (Shinninshiki) in the Tokyo Imperial Palace and the Speech from the Throne ceremony in the House of Councillors in the National Diet Building. The latter ceremony opens ordinary and extra sessions of the Diet. Ordinary sessions are opened each January and also after new elections to the House of Representatives. Extra sessions usually convene in the autumn and are opened then.
Although the Emperor has been a symbol of continuity with the past, the degree of power exercised by the Emperor has varied considerably throughout Japanese history. In the early 7th century, the Emperor had begun to be called the "Son of Heaven" (天子, tenshi, or 天子様 tenshi-sama).
The earliest Emperor recorded in Kojiki and Nihon Shoki is Emperor Jimmu, who is said to be a descendant of Amaterasu's grandson Ninigi who descended from Heaven (Tenson kōrin). According to the Nihon Shoki, the Emperors have an unbroken male lineage that goes back more than 2,600 years. The key to the origin of the Japanese imperial line may lie within the ancient imperial tombs known as kofun. However, since the Meiji period, the Imperial Household Agency has refused to open the kofun to the public nor to archaeologists, citing their desire not to disturb the spirits of the past Emperors. In December 2006, the Imperial Household Agency reversed its position and decided to allow researchers to enter some of the kofun with no restrictions.
The title of Emperor was borrowed from China, being derived from Chinese characters and was retroactively applied to the legendary Japanese rulers who reigned prior to the 7th-8th centuries AD.
There have been six non-imperial families who have controlled Japanese emperors: the Soga (530s–645), the Fujiwara (850s–1070), the Taira (1159-1180s), the Minamoto (and Kamakura bakufu) (1192–1333), the Ashikaga (1336–1565), and the Tokugawa (1603–1867). However, every shogun from the Minamoto, Ashikaga, and Tokugawa families had to be officially recognized by the Emperors, who were still the source of sovereignty, although they could not exercise their powers independently from the Shogunate.
The growth of the samurai class from the 10th century gradually weakened the power of the imperial family over the realm, leading to a time of instability. Emperors have been known to come into conflict with the reigning shogun from time to time. Some instances, such as Emperor Go-Toba's 1221 rebellion against the Kamakura shogunate and the 1336 Kenmu Restoration under Emperor Go-Daigo, show the power struggle between the imperial court and the military governments of Japan.
Until recent centuries, Japan's territory did not include several remote regions of its modern-day territory. The name "Nippon" came into use only many centuries after the start of the current imperial line. Centralized government only began to appear shortly before and during the time of Prince Shōtoku (572–622). The Emperor was more like a revered embodiment of divine harmony than the head of an actual governing administration. In Japan, it has always been easy for ambitious lords to hold actual power, as such positions have not been inherently contradictory to the Emperor's position. The parliamentary government today continues a similar coexistence with the Emperor as have various shoguns, regents, warlords, guardians, etc.
Historically the titles of Tennō in Japanese have never included territorial designations as is the case with many European monarchs. The position of Emperor is a territory-independent phenomenon—the Emperor is the Emperor, even if he has followers only in one province (as was the case sometimes with the southern and northern courts).
From 1192 to 1867, sovereignty of the state was exercised by the shoguns, or their shikken regents (1203–1333), whose authority was conferred by Imperial warrant. When Portuguese explorers first came into contact with the Japanese (see Nanban period), they described Japanese conditions in analogy, likening the Emperor with great symbolic authority but little political power, to the Pope, and the Shogun to secular European rulers (e.g., the Holy Roman Emperor). In keeping with the analogy, they even used the term "Emperor" in reference to the shogun and their regent, e.g. in the case of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, whom missionaries called "Emperor Taico-sama" (from Taikō and the honorific sama).
After the United States Navy Commodore Matthew C. Perry's Black Ships forcibly opened Japan to foreign trade, and the shogunate proved incapable of hindering the "barbarian" interlopers, the Emperor Kōmei began to assert himself politically. By the early 1860s, the relationship between the imperial court and the Shogunate was changing radically. Disaffected domains and rōnins began to rally to the call of sonnō jōi ("revere the Emperor, expel the barbarians"). The domains of Satsuma and Chōshū, historic enemies of the Tokugawa, used this turmoil to unite their forces and won an important military victory outside of Kyoto against Tokugawa forces.
In 1868, imperial "restoration" was declared, and the Shogunate was dissolved. A new constitution described the Emperor as "the head of the Empire, combining in Himself the rights of sovereignty", whose rights included to sanction and promulgate laws, to execute them and to exercise "supreme command of the Army and the Navy". The liaison conference created in 1893 also made the Emperor the leader of the Imperial General Headquarters.
The role of the Emperor as head of the State Shinto religion was exploited during the war, creating an Imperial cult that led to kamikaze bombers and other fanaticism. This in turn led to the requirement in the Potsdam Declaration for the elimination "for all time [of] the authority and influence of those who have deceived and misled the people of Japan into embarking on world conquest". Following Japan's surrender, the Allies issued the Shinto Directive separating church and state within Japan, leading to the Humanity Declaration of the incumbent Emperor. Subsequently, a new constitution was drafted to define the role of the Emperor and the government.
The constitution provides for a parliamentary system of government and guarantees certain fundamental rights. Under its terms, the Emperor of Japan is "the symbol of the State and of the unity of the people" and exercises a purely ceremonial role without the possession of sovereignty.
The constitution, also known as the "Constitution of Japan" (日本国憲法, Nihonkoku-Kenpō, formerly written 日本國憲法 (same pronunciation)), "Postwar Constitution" (戦後憲法, Sengo-Kenpō) or the "Peace Constitution" (平和憲法, Heiwa-Kenpō), was drawn up under the Allied occupation that followed World War II and was intended to replace Japan's previous militaristic and quasi-absolute monarchy system with a form of liberal democracy. Currently, it is a rigid document and no subsequent amendment has been made to it since its adoption.
The Emperors traditionally had an education officer. In recent times, Emperor Taishō had Count Nogi Maresuke, Emperor Shōwa had Marshal-Admiral Marquis Tōgō Heihachirō, and Emperor Akihito had Elizabeth Gray Vining as well as Shinzo Koizumi as their tutors.
There are two Japanese words equivalent to the English word "Emperor": tennō (天皇, lit. "heavenly sovereign"), which is used exclusively to refer to the Emperor of Japan, and kōtei (皇帝, the title used for all other foreign Emperors), which is used primarily to describe non-Japanese Emperors. Sumeramikoto (lit. "the Imperial person") was also used in Old Japanese. The term tennō was used by the Emperors up until the Middle Ages; then, following a period of disuse, it was used again from the 19th century. In English, the term mikado (御門 or 帝 or みかど), literally meaning "the honorable gate" (i.e. the gate of the imperial palace, which indicates the person who lives in and possesses the palace), was once used (as in The Mikado, a 19th-century operetta), but this term is now obsolete. (Compare Sublime Porte, an old term for the Ottoman government.)
Traditionally, the Japanese considered it disrespectful to call any person by his given name, and more so for a person of noble rank. This convention is only slightly relaxed in modern age and now it is still unadvisable among friends to use the given name, but use of the family name is still common. In the case of the imperial family, it is considered extremely inappropriate to use the given name. Since Emperor Meiji, it has been customary to have one era per Emperor and to rename each Emperor after his death using the name of the era over which he presided. Prior to Emperor Meiji, the names of the eras were changed more frequently, and the posthumous names of the Emperors were chosen in a different manner.
Outside Japan, beginning with Emperor Shōwa, the Emperors are often referred to by their given names, both whilst alive and posthumously. For example, the previous Emperor is usually called Hirohito in English, although he was never referred to as Hirohito in Japan, and was renamed Shōwa Tennō after his death, which is the only name that Japanese speakers currently use when referring to him.
The current Emperor on the throne is typically referred to by the title Tennō Heika (天皇陛下, "His Majesty the Emperor"), Kinjō Heika (今上陛下, literally "His Current Majesty") or simply Tennō, when speaking Japanese. The current Emperor will be renamed Heisei Tennō (平成天皇) after his death and will then be referred to exclusively by that name in Japanese. Non-Japanese speakers typically refer to him as Emperor Akihito, and will almost certainly continue to do so after his death. It is considered a major faux pas to refer to a living Emperor by his posthumous name.
Originally, the ruler of Japan was known as either 大和大王/大君 (Yamato-ōkimi, Grand King of Yamato), 倭王/倭国王 (Wa-ō/Wakoku-ō, King of Wa, used externally) or 治天下大王 (Ame-no-shita shiroshimesu ōkimi or Sumera no mikoto, Grand King who rules all under heaven, used internally) in Japanese and Chinese sources prior to the 7th century. The oldest documented use of the word "Tennō" is on a wooden slat, or mokkan, that was unearthed in Asuka-mura, Nara Prefecture in 1998 and dated back to the reign of Emperor Tenmu and Empress Jitō.
Throughout history, Japanese Emperors and noblemen appointed the position of chief wife, rather than just keeping a harem or an assortment of female attendants.
The Japanese imperial dynasty consistently practiced official polygamy, a practice that only ended in the Taishō period (1912–1926). Besides the Empress, the Emperor could take, and nearly always took, several secondary consorts ("concubines") of various hierarchical degrees. Concubines were allowed also to other dynasts (Shinnōke, Ōke). After a decree by Emperor Ichijō, some Emperors even had two empresses simultaneously (kōgō and chūgū are the two separate titles for that situation). With the help of all this polygamy, the imperial clan thus was capable of producing more offspring. (Sons by secondary consorts were usually recognized as imperial princes, too, and could be recognized as heir to the throne if the empress did not give birth to an heir.)
Of the eight female Tennō (reigning empresses) of Japan, none married or gave birth after ascending the throne. Some of them, being widows, had produced children prior to their reigns.
In the succession, children of the empress were preferred over sons of secondary consorts. Thus it was significant which quarters had preferential opportunities in providing chief wives to imperial princes, i.e. supplying future empresses.
Apparently, the oldest tradition of official marriages within the imperial dynasty were marriages between dynasty members, even half-siblings or uncle and niece. Such marriages were deemed to preserve better the imperial blood or were aimed at producing children symbolic of a reconciliation between two branches of the imperial dynasty. Daughters of others remained concubines, until Emperor Shōmu (701-706) — in what was specifically reported as the first elevation of its kind — elevated his Fujiwara consort Empress Kōmyō to chief wife.
Japanese monarchs have been, as much as others elsewhere, dependent on making alliances with powerful chiefs and other monarchs. Many such alliances were sealed by marriages. The specific feature in Japan has been the fact that these marriages have been soon incorporated as elements of tradition which controlled the marriages of later generations, though the original practical alliance had lost its real meaning. A repeated pattern has been an imperial son-in-law under the influence of his powerful non-imperial father-in-law.
Beginning from the 7th and 8th centuries, Emperors primarily took women of the Fujiwara clan as their highest wives — the most probable mothers of future monarchs. This was cloaked as a tradition of marriage between heirs of two kami (Shinto deities): descendants of Amaterasu with descendants of the family kami of the Fujiwara. (Originally, the Fujiwara were descended from relatively minor nobility, thus their kami is an unremarkable one in the Japanese myth world.) To produce imperial children, heirs of the nation, with two-side descent from the two kami, was regarded as desirable — or at least it suited powerful Fujiwara lords, who thus received preference in the imperial marriage market. The reality behind such marriages was an alliance between an imperial prince and a Fujiwara lord, his father-in-law or grandfather, the latter with his resources supporting the prince to the throne and most often controlling the government. These arrangements created the tradition of regents (Sesshō and Kampaku), with these positions held only by a Fujiwara sekke lord.
Earlier, the Emperors had married women from families of the government-holding Soga lords, and women of the imperial clan itself, i.e. various-degree cousins and often even their own sisters (half-sisters). Several imperials of the 5th and 6th centuries such as Prince Shōtoku were children of half-sibling couples. These marriages often were alliance or succession devices: the Soga lord ensured his domination of a prince who would be put on the throne as a puppet; or a prince ensured the combination of two imperial descents, to strengthen his own and his children's claim to the throne. Marriages were also a means to seal a reconciliation between two imperial branches.
After a couple of centuries, Emperors could no longer take anyone from outside such families as primary wife, no matter what the expediency of such a marriage and power or wealth brought by such might have been. Only very rarely did a prince ascend the throne whose mother was not descended from the approved families. The earlier necessity and expediency had mutated into a strict tradition that did not allow for current expediency or necessity, but only dictated that daughters of a restricted circle of families were eligible brides, because they had produced eligible brides for centuries. Tradition had become more forceful than law.
Fujiwara women were often Empresses, and concubines came from less exalted noble families. In the last thousand years, sons of an imperial male and a Fujiwara woman have been preferred in the succession.
The five Fujiwara families, Ichijō, Kujō, Nijō, Konoe, and Takatsukasa, were the primary source of imperial brides from the 8th century to the 19th century, even more often than daughters of the imperial clan itself. Fujiwara daughters were thus the usual empresses and mothers of Emperors.
This restriction on brides for the Emperor and crown prince was made explicit in the Meiji-era Imperial House Law of 1889. A clause stipulated that daughters of Sekke (the five main branches of the higher Fujiwara) and daughters of the imperial clan itself were primarily acceptable brides.
The law was repealed in the aftermath of World War II. The present Emperor, Akihito, became the first crown prince for over a thousand years to marry a consort from outside the previously eligible circle.
During the Kofun period, so-called "archaic funerals" were held for the dead Emperors, but only the funerary rites from the end of the period, which the chronicles describe in more detail, are known. They were centered around the rite of the mogari, a provisional depository between death and permanent burial.
Empress Jitō was the first Japanese imperial personage to be cremated (in 703). After that, with a few exceptions, all Emperors were cremated up to the Edo period. For the next 350 years, in-ground burial became the favoured funeral custom. In 2013, the Imperial Household Agency announced that Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko would be cremated after they die.
Until 1912, the Emperors of Japan were usually buried in Kyoto. From the Taishō Emperor onward, the Emperors have been buried at the Musashi Imperial Graveyard in Tokyo.
The Japanese imperial dynasty bases its position in the expression that it has "reigned since time immemorial" (万世一系 bansei ikkei). It is true that its origins are buried in the mists of time: there are no records of any Emperor who was not said to have been a descendant of other, yet earlier Emperors. There is suspicion that Emperor Keitai (c. 500 AD) may have been an unrelated outsider, though the sources state that he was a male-line descendant of Emperor Ōjin. However, his descendants, including his successors, were according to records descended from at least one and probably several imperial princesses of the older lineage. The tradition built by those legends has chosen to recognize just the putative male ancestry as valid for legitimizing his succession, not giving any weight to ties through the said princesses.
Millennia ago, the Japanese imperial family developed its own peculiar system of hereditary succession. It has been non-primogenitural, more or less agnatic, based mostly on rotation. Today, Japan uses strict agnatic primogeniture, which was adopted from Prussia, by which Japan was greatly influenced in the 1870s.
The controlling principles and their interaction were apparently very complex and sophisticated, leading to even idiosyncratic outcomes. Some chief principles apparent in the succession have been:Women were allowed to succeed (but there existed no known children of theirs whose father did not also happen to be an agnate of the imperial house, thus there is neither a precedent that a child of an imperial woman with a non-imperial man could inherit, nor a precedent forbidding it for children of empresses). However, female accession was clearly much more rare than male.
Adoption was possible and a much used way to increase the number of succession-entitled heirs (however, the adopted child had to be a child of another member agnate of the imperial house).
Abdication was used very often, and in fact occurred more often than death on the throne. In those days, the Emperor's chief task was priestly (or godly), containing so many repetitive rituals that it was deemed that after a service of around ten years, the incumbent deserved pampered retirement as an honored former Emperor.
Primogeniture was not used — rather, in the early days, the imperial house practiced something resembling a system of rotation. Very often a brother (or sister) followed the elder sibling even in the case of the predecessor leaving children. The "turn" of the next generation came more often after several individuals of the senior generation. Rotation went often between two or more of the branches of the imperial house, thus more or less distant cousins succeeded each other. Emperor Go-Saga even decreed an official alternation between heirs of his two sons, which system continued for a couple of centuries (leading finally to shogun-induced (or utilized) strife between these two branches, the "southern" and "northern" Emperors). Towards the end, the alternates were very distant cousins counted in degrees of male descent (but all that time, intermarriages occurred within the imperial house, thus they were close cousins if female ties are counted). During the past five hundred years, however, probably due to Confucian influence, inheritance by sons — but not always, or even most often, the eldest son has been the norm.
Historically, the succession to the Chrysanthemum Throne has always passed to descendants in male line from the imperial lineage. Generally, they have been males, though of the over one hundred monarchs there have been nine women (one pre-historical and eight historical) as Emperor on eleven occasions.
Over a thousand years ago, a tradition started that an Emperor should ascend relatively young. A dynast who had passed his toddler years was regarded suitable and old enough. Reaching the age of legal majority was not a requirement. Thus, a multitude of Japanese Emperors have ascended as children, as young as 6 or 8 years old. The high-priestly duties were deemed possible for a walking child. A reign of around ten years was regarded a sufficient service. Being a child was apparently a fine property, to better endure tedious duties and to tolerate subjugation to political power-brokers, as well as sometimes to cloak the truly powerful members of the imperial dynasty. Almost all Japanese empresses and dozens of Emperors abdicated, and lived the rest of their lives in pampered retirement, wielding influence behind the scenes. Several Emperors abdicated to their entitled retirement while still in their teens. These traditions show in Japanese folklore, theater, literature, and other forms of culture, where the Emperor is usually described or depicted as an adolescent.
Before the Meiji Restoration, Japan had eleven reigns of reigning empresses, all of them daughters of the male line of the Imperial House. None ascended purely as a wife or as a widow of an Emperor. Imperial daughters and granddaughters, however, usually ascended the throne as a sort of a "stop gap" measure — if a suitable male was not available or some imperial branches were in rivalry so that a compromise was needed. Over half of Japanese empresses and many Emperors abdicated once a suitable male descendant was considered to be old enough to rule (just past toddlerhood, in some cases). Four empresses, Empress Suiko, Empress Kōgyoku (also Empress Saimei), and Empress Jitō, as well as the mythical Empress Jingū, were widows of deceased Emperors and princesses of the blood imperial in their own right. One, Empress Genmei, was the widow of a crown prince and a princess of the blood imperial. The other four, Empress Genshō, Empress Kōken (also Empress Shōtoku), Empress Meishō, and Empress Go-Sakuramachi, were unwed daughters of previous Emperors. None of these empresses married or gave birth after ascending the throne.
Article 2 of the Meiji Constitution (the Constitution of the Empire of Japan) stated, "The Imperial Throne shall be succeeded to by imperial male descendants, according to the provisions of the Imperial House Law." The 1889 Imperial Household Law fixed the succession on male descendants of the imperial line, and specifically excluded female descendants from the succession. In the event of a complete failure of the main line, the throne would pass to the nearest collateral branch, again in the male line. If the Empress did not give birth to an heir, the Emperor could take a concubine, and the son he had by that concubine would be recognized as heir to the throne. This law, which was promulgated on the same day as the Meiji Constitution, enjoyed co-equal status with that constitution.
Article 2 of the Constitution of Japan, promulgated in 1947 by influence of the U.S. occupation administration, provides that "The Imperial Throne shall be dynastic and succeeded to in accordance with the Imperial Household Law passed by the Diet." The Imperial Household Law of 1947, enacted by the ninety-second and last session of the Imperial Diet, retained the exclusion on female dynasts found in the 1889 law. The government of Prime Minister Yoshida Shigeru hastily cobbled together the legislation to bring the Imperial Household in compliance with the American-written Constitution of Japan that went into effect in May 1947. In an effort to control the size of the imperial family, the law stipulates that only legitimate male descendants in the male line can be dynasts; that imperial princesses lose their status as Imperial Family members if they marry outside the Imperial Family; and that the Emperor and other members of the Imperial Family may not adopt children. It also prevented branches, other than the branch descending from Taishō, from being imperial princes any longer.
Succession is now regulated by laws passed by the National Diet. The current law excludes women from the succession. A change to this law had been considered until Princess Kiko gave birth to a son.
Until the birth of Prince Hisahito, son of Prince Akishino, on September 6, 2006, there was a potential succession problem, since Prince Akishino was the only male child to be born into the imperial family since 1965. Following the birth of Princess Aiko, there was public debate about amending the current Imperial Household Law to allow women to succeed to the throne. In January 2005, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi appointed a special panel composed of judges, university professors, and civil servants to study changes to the Imperial Household Law and to make recommendations to the government.
The panel dealing with the succession issue recommended on October 25, 2005 amending the law to allow females of the male line of imperial descent to ascend the Japanese throne. On January 20, 2006, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi devoted part of his annual keynote speech to the controversy, pledging to submit a bill allowing women to ascend the throne to ensure that the succession continues in the future in a stable manner. Shortly after the announcement that Princess Kiko was pregnant with her third child, Koizumi suspended such plans. Her son, Prince Hisahito, is the third in line to the throne under the current law of succession. On January 3, 2007, Prime Minister Shinzō Abe announced that he would drop the proposal to alter the Imperial Household Law.