Japan Glances

Japan’s Emperor and Imperial Family

Society Culture

Japan’s imperial family has a long history, shading back into legend. The emperor today has a ceremonial role and performs numerous functions as a symbol of the state.

Legendary Descendants of the Sun Goddess

The Japanese emperor is defined as “the symbol of the State and of the unity of the People” in Article 1 of the postwar Constitution, which came into effect in 1947.

He plays no part in guiding the course of national politics, but he does perform state functions of a formal and ceremonial nature. These include appointment of the prime minister and chief justice of the Supreme Court, convocation of the Diet, and promulgation of laws. He also meets with visiting royals and heads of state, receives foreign ambassadors and envoys, and meets all Japanese ambassadors and spouses before they move to their posts overseas.

He attends prize-giving, tree-planting, and other events, and presides over many activities, including meetings with members of the public, tea-ceremony gatherings, ceremonial meals, and poetry readings. Imperial trips have also traditionally included visits to war memorials to pray for the repose of the victims of conflict. The total number of such functions can rise to well over 100 each year. He makes regular visits to cultural and industrial enterprises and social welfare centers in Japan, as well as traveling abroad. The emperor and empress frequently meet with residents of disaster-stricken areas.

Emperor Naruhito, planting rice in May 2019.
Emperor Naruhito planting rice in May 2019.

Other important duties include promoting traditional culture, such as waka poetry, and performing court rituals like the shihōhai—a New Year ceremony in which the emperor turns to bow in veneration facing each of the nation’s major shrines. Between official tasks, he conducts academic research.

Naruhito, who took the throne on May 1, 2019, is officially the 126th Japanese emperor, but this follows traditional genealogy based on myths in ancient chronicles like Nihon shoki, written in the eighth century. There is no historical evidence for the existence of many of the emperors up through the sixth century —much less those in the era stretching back to 660 BC, when the legendary first emperor Jinmu is said to have taken the throne. Traditional myth has it that Jinmu was a descendant of the sun goddess Amaterasu, who passed down to him three sacred treasures—a sword, a mirror, and a jewel. Japan’s emperors have looked after the imperial regalia ever since and taken on a priestly role in leading Shintō rites.

Life in the Imperial Family

Members of the imperial family do not have a shared family name and they use only given names. Emperor Shōwa was known in his lifetime as Hirohito; the emperor only takes the name of his era upon his death. The present imperial couple are simply Naruhito and Masako. Naruhito’s parents are now known as Emperor Emeritus Akihito and Empress Emerita Michiko. When men in the imperial family who are not in the direct line of succession marry, they are given new titles to indicate that they are establishing new houses. For example, Akihito’s second son Fumihito bore the title Prince Akishino before becoming crown prince upon his brother’s accession to the throne.

Imperial family members may not choose their jobs freely. They may only be employed at nonprofit organizations working for the public good, and the emperor’s permission is required. They cannot vote or run for office, and must prioritize their official duties. Imperial assets are owned by the state.

The emperor and other members of his family may not adopt children. Men in the imperial family who wish to marry must first win the approval of the Imperial House Council. Female members are free to choose their partners, but lose their imperial status on marrying out of the family.

Male Emperors Only

Matters related to the imperial family including succession and regency are laid out in the Imperial House Law.

The Constitution states that the “Imperial Throne shall be dynastic.” Historically, there have been cases where sons of concubines have ascended to the throne. There have also been female emperors. According to the current Imperial House Law, however, only “a male offspring in the male line belonging to the Imperial Lineage” may become emperor, and there are no immediate signs that this is likely to change.

The imperial family comes together to celebrate New Year on January 1, 2020
The imperial family comes together to celebrate New Year on January 1, 2020

(Banner photo: Emperor Naruhito, third from left, and other members of the imperial family wave from the balcony of the Imperial Palace in Tokyo to a crowd celebrating the New Year on January 2, 2020. All photos courtesy of the Imperial Household Agency.)

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