All You Need to Know About Japan's Emperors (Podcast Recap! S1E13)

Published February 19th, 2021

In our 13th episode of Nihongo Master podcast, we came to you as an ambassador for the royal family of Japan — chatting about the lives and times of the emperors. The royals are still a pretty big deal here.

The imperial monarchy of Japan is the oldest royal dynasty anywhere in the world. We know for sure that this same family has been in power — in one form or another — for at least 1500 years. Although, if Japanese legend is to be believed, that number is closer to 2650 years!

If you want to understand how the Japanese people relate to their imperial family, you only have to look at a select few — a greatest hits of some of the most influential royals ever to sit on the Chrysanthemum Throne.

This is a recap of the full episode, so if you’d like to hear more about it, head over to Apple Podcast or Spotify to check it out!

#1. Emperor Jimmu

We looked at the very first emperor, Emperor Jimmu, linked to the Shinto myths about the creation of the world itself. Jimmu, the very first Yamato Dynasty Emperor, reigned for an impressive 75 years, from 660 to 585 BC. He’s believed to be the grandson of the sun — the actual sun.

We won’t go into detail about how it all came about — so if you’re interested, the quickest way to get your answers is if you head over to the Nihongo Master podcast and have a listen to episode 13!

Jimmu did what all emperors do: he started conquering kingdoms. While moving through modern-day Osaka, he eventually met his match in a local warlord who served the ruler of modern-day Nara and had to back off to lick his wounds, losing his brother along the way.

Because he was the grandson of the sun, he didn’t have to lay down and accept defeat. His godly grandma sent a vision to one of his advisers which showed a magical sword hidden nearby. He then brought the sword to Jim, and they continued on their way.

That’s not all — because the eastern approach to ancient Nara was pretty tricky to navigate, the sun goddess sent a guide to help: a three-legged crow called Yatagarasu. We mentioned him before, in our Fantastic Beasts episode (episode 4).

With a magic sword and a talking animal companion, of course, Jimmu succeeded in his conquering of the cities and established a dynasty.

So do the Japanese people themselves genuinely believe in these myths? We had a bit of contemporary discussion in the episode, so give it a listen to hear more about how these myths came about and what the Japanese people really believe happened.

#2. Empress Suiko

We jumped forward around 1000 years to 593 AD for a healthy dose of girl power. The legal ban of having a ruling empress is a pretty recent development — throughout history, Japan has actually had eight different empresses sitting on its throne. The longest-reigning of them all was also the very first: Empress Suiko. As the 33rd head of the dynasty, she was the ruler of Japan for a full 35 years, from 593 to 628 AD.

There were a lot of deaths involved that put her into power — and we broke it down briefly in the podcast episode. Empress Suiko had to step in to put an end to all of the bickerings between the boys of the two clans, the Mononobes and Sogas. They had fought a war over the last emperor, and it looked like they would be going at it again unless a neutral leader could step up to quieten things down. So that’s exactly why Empress Suiko was chosen to take on the proper title of empress.

Together with her nephew, the crown prince, they spread Buddhism throughout Japan, established diplomacy with China, and brought a lot of Chinese innovations to the country, including the calendar and political system.

So Empress Suiko’s ruling sounds like a huge win for women in Japan, but why the ban on women becoming empress? Similarly, we had a contemporary discussion in the podcast episode — talking about how the imperial palace was made into a boys-only club, and how the current Emperor only has a daughter...what would become of Japan’s royalty line? Will we finally see another empress on the throne in this lifetime?

#3. The Meiji Emperor

We jumped way forward down the line of succession, to 1868, when one Prince Mutsuhito inherited the throne after the death of his father the year before, and with it took the name, Emperor Meiji. This was the start of probably the most important part of Japanese history: the Meiji Era.

If you’ve ever been to Japan before, you’ll know that it’s not all kimonos and pagodas; this is a thoroughly modern country with a lot of international influences. After visiting a centuries-old shrine, you can go grab a hamburger. And after a long hard day at work, you can slip out of your business suit and into a traditional yukata robe for a dip in an onsen. This mix of the familiar and uniquely Japanese is part of what makes Japan such an easy place to travel in. And for that, the first person we have to thank is Emperor Meiji.

Before the Meiji Era, Japan was pretty much completely closed off to the outside world, but, seeing how the rest of the world was racing ahead of them, some influential feudal lords of the day decided it was time to leave the old feudalist ways behind.

The first step was to get rid of the Shogun — the military leader of Japan, who actually held more power than the emperor himself — and they did. With his full power restored for the first time in almost 700 years, the emperor went about giving his country a total Western makeover.

This meant business suits and Western casual clothes; trams on the avenues and railways connecting the cities; flushing toilets and modern sewage systems; street lights and paved roads; newspapers and the Gregorian calendar; and universities to educate the public; oh, and Western food.

But...there was a darker side to all this modernization because at the same time, Japan was upgrading its military with lots of deadly new tools. In fact, some of the samurai who helped put the Meiji Emperor on the throne found themselves at the wrong end of his new guns during the Satsuma Rebellion in 1877, as they felt short-changed by the fact that they’d lost nearly all of the privileges they once enjoyed.

After putting down the angry samurai, Meiji-san went on a bit of a rampage of wars around Asia, conquering Korea, parts of China, Taiwan, and part of Russia. What’s more, the government also fought a political war against Buddhism, and promoted Japan’s native Shinto religion instead. And for the first time ever, they started promoting the idea that the Emperor himself was a literal Shinto god…

Things kind of went a bit crazy, and Japanese nationalism was at an all-time high. About 30 years after Emperor Meiji’s 1912 death, all of this mad propaganda would eventually lead to…well…

Our contemporary discussion for this part talked a bit about Japanese politics — nothing too heavy, but some stuff that you’d want to know if you’re ever thinking about settling down here permanently. The wounds from those wards with China and Korea are still pretty raw...

#4. The Reiwa Emperor

The final emperor we talked about was the current one. Although his name is Emperor Naruhito, Japanese monarchs traditionally take a new name to match the new era they ring in, so he’s now technically named Emperor Reiwa.

And you might well be wondering, who chooses the name for the era? Well… it’s a whole traditional process that we discussed in the episode, so you should definitely listen to it for the answer to that question!

Emperor Reiwa’s enthronement ceremony was quite a big deal too. It took place in October 2019 and representatives from pretty much every country on earth joined. The area around Tokyo’s imperial palace was also packed with royalists and tourists looking to absorb a little history in the making. If those crowds were any indication, it seems like the Japanese royal family is still doing pretty well.

Naruhito and his wife — Kōgō Masako — enjoy a pretty decent amount of admiration. Kyodo News puts the figure somewhere around 75%, meaning about three-quarters of the country have a generally favourable opinion or better — they’re charitable, gentle, maybe a little boring. However, there’s still a sense among a lot of Japanese people that… they don’t really matter.

Since they don’t get involved in politics, they’re basically just symbolic. The new Japanese constitution stated that the emperor was totally banned from participating in politics. Nowadays, the Japanese royal family stays waaaay away from all of that — the emperor is even less politically powerful now than in the days of the shogun.

But, remember, he is still the head of the Shinto religion.

Vocab Recap

Densetsu (伝説) — legend

Tennō (天皇) — emperor

Amatsukami (天津神) — the original heavenly gods in Japanese shinto

Karasu (カラス) — crow

Mon (紋) — a Japanese family clan emblem.

Kiku (菊) — chrysanthemum,

Kōgo (交互) — the wife of the emperor

bukkyō (仏教) — buddhism

Daimyō (大名) — a feudal lord and head of a family clan in old Japan

Musuko (息子) — son

Musume (娘) — daughter

Daigaku (大学) — university

Yōshoku (洋食) — Western-style food

sensō (戦争) — war

Gaijin (外人) — a slang term for foreigner, which is short for the more polite term gaikokujin (外国人).

Uyoku dantai (右翼団体)— right-wing groups

Sayoku (左翼) — left-wing

Kenkoku Kinen no hi (建国記念の日) — National Foundation Day, on February 11th

Jidai (時代) — era

ginkō (銀行) — bank

Kōkyo (皇居) — the imperial palace in Tokyo

Kekkonshiki (結婚式) — wedding

Kenpō (憲法) — constitution

Four very different emperors/empresses, who reveal four very different facets of Japanese culture and society. I’d say that understanding the lives and times of these four rulers is pretty key to understanding modern Japan and how it came to be.

It’s a place of ancient myths which still affect and enrich daily life; a place where women can often be relegated to the sidelines; a place where national identity has a sometimes ambivalent relationship with the outside world; and where, despite all that, the vast majority of the people continue to update their attitudes to fit with the modern times, while still holding onto their unique traditions and heritage.

So what are you waiting for? Head over to Apply Podcast or Spotify for the full episode!