The ones above all - a brief history of the Japanese Royal Family

By Yo Tong on December 31, 2010
New Year's greeting of the Japanese Royal Family by the general public in 2010. Every year, the adult members of the Royal Family are present at the public address at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo. (Image: Michael Graf)

Winston Churchill once said, “Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” The same might be said about Japan.

Renowned for its ability to adopt and assimilate elements from foreign cultures, Japan is regarded as the first East Asian country to have devised a modern (read Westernized) constitution, yet its discourse of self-identity is based on the concept of racial purity. As some of the island’s rightists have put it, “one nation, one civilization, one language, one culture and one race” bind the Japanese people, despite the existence of indigenous Ainu people, its history of annexation of the Ryukyu Kingdom in 1872, and as a plethora of scholarly books and documents have argued, the presence of Korean blood within the Imperial Family itself.

The Japanese Royal Family, which is said to be “unbroken for ages eternal,” may be regarded as the source of such mysterious characteristics.

In Japanese, the Kun-yomi (the indigenous Japanese pronunciation) for “politics” is matsurigoto, which literally means “the matter of religious feasts” - to this day, “matsuri” means “festival” or “feast.” In fact, similar to many other primitive societies all over the world, in ancient Japan the dual religious and political role of the Royal Family was historically intertwined.

Book of Wei
The Book of Wei

In the Records of Three Kingdoms, the official and authoritative historical text that recounts the period of the Three Kingdoms in China, there is a volume on the Eastern Barbarians, which is thought to be one of the first historical records to make explicit mention of Japan: herein lies a description of the “Wa” people. Within these paragraphs lies a description of queen Himiko and her country of Yamatai:

The country was formerly ruled by a man. For some seventy or eighty years thereafter, there were disturbances and warfare. The people subsequently agreed upon a woman to act as their ruler. Her name was Himiko. She occupied herself with magic and sorcery, bewitching the people. Though mature in age, she remained unmarried.

It is commonly held that the person being alluded to is Yamato Totohi Momoso Himemiko, one of the daughters of Emperor Korei. He was the seventh Emperor of Japan, or the sixth out of the “eight undocumented monarchs.”

What can be inferred from these texts is that, firstly, it was the Royal Family members who occupied themselves with magic, shamanism and sorcery and who bewitched people; in other words, the religious and political roles were both played by the emperor. Secondly, there was no single leader, or a unified, centralized power ruling all Japan – at least for those “seventy or eighty years” before Himiko came to reign. In fact, Japanese historian Furuta Takehiko proposed a “Dynasty Pluralism Theory” in which he argued that there may have been multiple dynasties which coexisted within the archipelago.

As time went by, the Japanese Imperial Family’s political power gradually became decentralized scattering itself first into the hands of the nobility, then into the hands of the warrior class. Historian Tsuda Sokichi pointed out in his work, “The Japanese Royal Family” (Nihon-no Koshitsu) that, with its lack of real power, the Royal Family has rarely participated in actual politics, but rather it exerted some influence upon it via different religious rituals, thus becoming the de jure ruler of Japan. Literary critic Yoshimoto Takaaki noted that before the Middle Ages, the true strength of the Japanese Imperial system was to be found within their hereditary religious power, whereas political power was puppeteered by the close relatives of the Emperors.

During the Edo period (1603–1868), under the influence of humanist Neo-Confucianism, influential politicians under the Tokugawa Shogunate such as Hayashi Razan and Arai Hakuseki made the distinction between mythological discourse and history. In Koshitsu (or The Interpretation of Ancient History), Arai pointed out that “those named as gods are people.”  Hayashi Razan advocated that Emperor Jimmu, the mythological first Japanese Emperor, was merely one of the numerous prominent clans. Although by the end of the Edo period some people promoted the idea of Kobu Gattai, or “Union of the Imperial Court and the Shogunate through marriage,” commentator Tachibana Takashi argued that this was only possible because people during that period did not give much importance to the nature of the Imperial Family as the divine descendants of the gods.

However, after the Meiji Restoration (1868–1912), under the system of State Shinto, the divinity of the Royal Family was used as a nationalist argument to strengthen the rhetoric of a common descent; this became even more accentuated during the Shōwa period (1926–1989). According to Ienaga Saburo, primary school history textbooks in 1941 quoted the mythological origins of the nation from the text, Nihon Shoki (or “The Chronicles of Japan” - the second oldest book in Japanese history) as proof of the divine provenance of the Japanese nation:

Amaterasu no Okami decreed to Amawakahiko “The rich reed plain central country may be ruled by my children.”

One of the possible reasons for the emphasis of the Royal Family's divine descent, and by extension also of Japan's mythological origins, was the decline of China in mid-Qing Dynasty combined with the downfall of the Tokugawa Shogunate – the patron of Neo-Confucianism during the Edo period. This resulted in the decline of Chinese ideological authority. In order to deal with domestic crises and fill the ideological vacuum left by the collapse of Confucianism, the Royal Family became the totem for anti-Shogunate warriors.

During a debate on imperialism with Mishima Yukio, literary critic Hayashi Fusao stated that, politically speaking, prior to the Meiji Restoration there had been a gradual development of the “armed Emperor” ideology: that is, “revere the Emperor, expel the barbarians under the military leadership of the Emperor, reunite the political and religious role of Emperor, subjugate the Tokugawa Shogunate and achieve the eventual restoration of the monarchy.”

Thus the Meiji “modernization” (ishin) was achieved by means of “restoration” (fukko).

Statesman and constitutional law scholar Minobe Tatsukichi tackled the subject from a different perspective. He published his own constitutional interpretation based on Allgemeine Staatslehre, the General Theory of the State, by the German legal philosopher Georg Jellinek. Minobe’s work is known as the “Theory of the Emperor as an Organ,” or Tenno Kikansetsu in Japanese. He elaborated that statehood has its own supreme status as a legal entity and although the Emperor is the symbol of national sovereignty, in reality, he is merely one of the various organs of this larger entity; his role is defined within the Meiji Constitution.

However, with the subsequent rise of rightist and military influence in the 1930s, Minobe’s theory received harsh attacks and his major publication “Compendium of the Constitution” (Kenpo Satsuyo) as well as “Additional Commentaries on the Constitution” (Tsuiho Kenpo Seigi) were subject to censorship.

The pre-war Japanese political system thus developed into a unique type of constitutionalism, wherein the Emperor had absolute supremacy, yet his executive power was to be firstly recognized or approved by government officials. Although the political parties during that period were constitutionally circumscribed, the imperial army and the navy arbitrarily interpreted the Meiji Constitution, manipulating the article concerning the Emperor as commander-in-chief so to retain independence from civilian control. They combined the latter with the 1900 Imperial ordinance that made military ministers active-duty officers.

Japanese troops occupying Nagata-cho
Japanese troops occupying Nagata-cho

By nominating a candidate for the post of Minister of the Army, and one for Minister of the Navy, they were successfully able to assert their influence on civic rule. Meanwhile, Emperor Hirohito (1926-1989) actively interfered in politics: during the 1936 “February 26 Incident” (Ni-niroku jiken) Hirohito admitted to leading the Regiment of Imperial Guards to suppress the coup d'état.

In the words of Ienaga, pre-war Japan was an “institution of collective irresponsibility”: the Emperor enjoyed his quasi-absolute power but bore no responsibility, while government officials were merely responsible for policy making, which they claimed followed predefined laws and rules.

Following the Japanese surrender on August 15th, 1945 that ended the Second World War, Hirohito broadcast a lengthy and solemn speech to the nation. In this monologue, he issued the so-called “Humanity Declaration” (Ningen Sengen), wherein he publicly denied the concept of the Emperor as a divine god (akitsumikami) which, he confessed, was “predicated on false conceptions”.

Nevertheless, Hirohito did not deny the mythological divine origins of his predecessors.

Hayashi Fusao, a novelist and literary critic of the Shōwa period, pointed out that whereas Hirohito denounced the Emperor’s godliness as “mere legend and myth,” he emphasized that the “ties between us (the Royal Family) and our people have always been founded upon mutual trust and affection”. Just how much trust can be granted to a figurehead who duped his people into stories of false sanctity is for the Japanese to decide.