Japan’s Emperor and Imperial Family

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. In 2016, there were around 200 such functions. He makes regular visits to cultural and industrial enterprises and social welfare centers in Japan, as well as traveling abroad. Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko have paid their respects to those killed in World War II in Okinawa, Saipan, Iwo Jima (Iōtō), Palau, and the Philippines, and frequently meet with residents of disaster-stricken areas.

Emperor Akihito planting rice in May 2011.

Empress Michiko feeds palace silkworms with mulberry leaves in May 2013. The tradition dates back over a century.

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.

Officially, Akihito is the 125th 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 from the sixth century and earlier 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, mirror, and 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, while the present imperial couple are simply Akihito and Michiko. When the men 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, Emperor Akihito’s second son Fumihito has the title Prince Akishino.

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. Emperor Akihito lives in the Imperial Palace in central Tokyo, and Crown Prince Naruhito lives with his family at Akasaka’s Tōgū Palace, also in the capital. Empress Michiko was the first commoner to enter the imperial family, marrying Akihito when he was still crown prince. She also became the first member to install a kitchen in her home and prepare meals for her husband and 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, 2017.

(Banner photo: Emperor Akihito [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 emperor’s eighty-third birthday on December 23, 2016. © Jiji. All photos courtesy of the Imperial Household Agency.)


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