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Changing Role of the Emperor of Japan Research Paper


Japan’s government is headed by a constitutional monarchy who is a hereditary leader with almost no real political power but acts as a symbolic leader of the country. While there are other countries with constitutional monarchies, Kingston reveals that Japan’s emperor system is unique in that it has been in existent for centuries and the emperor continues to be the center of the unity of the people and from this the people of Japan are unified (45).

The emperor has therefore played a significant role in uniting the people of Japan in the past and even today. The role has undergone significant changes and the Japanese emperor today is, according to the constitution, only the “symbol of the state” and not the head of state.

The role of the Japanese emperor has not always been as limited as it is today and the limits imposed today are as a result of changes which have taken place over the years.

The changes in role of the emperor have been influenced by the events taking place nationally as well as globally with the greatest changes being imposed by the new constitution which was imposed by the American Occupation following the defeat of Japan in WWII.

This paper will set out to address the changing role of the emperor of Japan and how the emperor’s role in every period influences the world. The paper will begin by giving a historical overview of the Imperial system in Japan and highlight the major changes that have taken place. A look at the role of the emperor in post WWII Japan will then follow with the action of Emperor Hirohito and Emperor Akihito being focused upon.

Historical perspective

The concept of an all-powerful monarchy was borrowed by the Japanese from the Chinese and the first Japanese emperor appeared as far back as 660 BC. Ohnuki-Tierney states that the historically, the emperor first and foremost was a religious leader who officiated over religious rituals (3).

The Japanese emperor therefore served the dual nature and functions of a religious leader and a secular monarch. The post of emperor was held in high regard and the continuity of his post was important for the country.

The emperor possessed legal authority arising from his being the center of the unity of the people. Through the centuries, Japan experienced numerous political and military struggles for power. These fierce civil wars tore the nation apart as powerful warrior clans waged war against each other.

Interestingly, the Emperor was never harmed regardless of which clan or tribe took up power. Instead, the Emperor was used as a symbol of power possessing no real authority and he was always protected by the rulers who used him for symbolic functions (Choy 20).The Imperial System in Japan reached its peak during the eighth century and after that, the system disintegrated never to regain its former power (Ohnuki-Tierney 5).

What is seen today as Japan’s imperial system is to a large extent a result of the Meiji inventions. The Meiji Restoration of 1868 was modeled after the Western monarchies who were then inventing their own traditions. This restoration presented a monumental shift in the role and power of the Emperor.

Hobsbawn and Ranger reveal that Meiji leaders modeled their monarchy after the British Monarchy and duped this as the “restoration of the imperial system of the Ancient period” (59). The Imperial System under Meiji constitution was significantly different.

To begin with, the emperor was in 1889 declared sacred and he was not to be intruded upon. Previously, the Emperor had been a “shaman” who is a human being endowed with powers to communicate with the gods. The Meiji restoration elevated the emperor to the level of Manifest Deity. People were to hold the emperor in reverence and they were to bow in the direction of his palace each morning as they recited a prayer.

Before the Meiji Restoration, Japanese emperors did not personally rule the country and they were kept in isolation at Kyoto while the shoguns ruled Japan. Under the Meiji constitution, the Emperor was given sovereign power in Japan and he in essence became the head of state.

The Meiji Constitution also gave the emperor military power and he was henceforth designated as commander-in-chief of the army and the navy. The people of Japan were also stipulated as the emperor’s subjects.

Despite this shift and the Emperor being having nearly absolute political and military power, the real power still remained with the military generals and admirals (Neary 134). As such, the Emperor was only the head of the country in theory since the real power was held by the military rulers and government officials.

During Emperor Meiji’s reign, Japan was under constant threat of Western encroachment as European powers sought to expand their interests in Asia. The emperor therefore established an emperor system which included representative democracy so as to modernize Japan’s society and economy and increase the capability of the country to defend itself against Western encroachment.

However, the power was concentrated in the hands of the emperor who coordinated Japan’s resources for modernization (Del Testa et al. 82). This move by the emperor was very successful and during his era, Japan underwent a dramatic transformation from an isolated island nation to one of the great power of the world during Emperor Meiji’s reign (Keene 23).

The next significant change in the role of the emperor took place under Emperor Hirohito who was born in 1901. He became Japan’s 124th emperor in 1926 when he succeeded his father the “Taisho” emperor Yoshihito (Caprio and Sugita 34). Hirohito played the role of divine emperor and he was the symbol of Japanese power and unity.

In pre WWII Japan, Hirohito was considered divine and he could sway official opinion despite the fact that it was the ministered, military officials and the elected parliament who governed Japan. Hirohito played the traditional roles of the emperor which included approving legislation, leading the arm and watching over the state Shinto Religion.

It was under Hirohito that Japan engaged in her aggressive military expansionism ventures with grievous damages being done to her neighboring countries. The emperor was aware of Japan’s military expansionism in China during the 1930s and into Southeast Asia in the 1940s and Del Testa et al theorizes that it is unlikely that the commanding generals would have operated without his blessings (82).


World War II ended with the defeat of Japan by the Allied forces. Japan and Germany were the two main aggressors in the war and for this reason, they were punished following the way. Upon Japan’s surrender at the end of World War II in 1945, America occupied Japan and proceeded to implement radical changes in the country.

Some of the changes involved the role that the emperor was going to play in post WWII Japan. To the occupying force and the outside world, Emperor Hirohito was seen as Japan’s chief military official and he was therefore held morally responsible for Japanese actions in the war.

Seaton notes that while all of Japan’s military action was carried out in the name of Emperor Hirohito, he was never held accountable for the war atrocities (47). While removing the emperor from power was seen as desirable, the occupational forces opted not to do this since such a move would have jeopardized the stability of Japan.

The US occupation authorities recognized the value of having the emperor as their mouthpiece since the Japanese were more likely to comply if traditional structures of power were retained (Caprio and Suguta 9). Hirohito was therefore left to be the symbol of Japan and of the unity of the people. However, the occupational forces stripped Emperor Hirohito of his role in government and religion and he the Emperor was reduced to a symbolic leader

The Americans proceeded to draft a new constitution for Japan which essentially replaced the emperor-based state with the doctrine of popular sovereignty (McCormick 163). This constitution severely limited the powers of the emperor who was forced to renounce his divinity.

The deified emperor was forced to relinquish his previous deity-states and accept a human persona. All this prepared the Japanese people for the diminished role he would assume henceforth. In addition to this, the new constitution called for the separation of state and religion.

Prior to WWII, the emperor had remained distant from the masses and he had never addressed the Japanese people publicly. The years immediately following WWII saw the emperor make efforts to connect with the people of war-torn Japan.

Ohnuki-Tierney documents that between 1946 and 1954, Emperor Hirohito traversed thousands of Kilometers to visit various parts of Japan so as to reinforce his image as “the emperor for the masses” and thus weaken the increasing opposition to the imperial system (8).

Recent History

The recent History of Japan’s imperial system has been embodied in the person of Emperor Akihito. He took office in 1989 following the death of his father, Emperor Hirohito. A significant difference between the succeeding emperor and his predecessor is that while Hirohito’s reign was tainted by questions of personal war responsibility, Emperor Akihito did not bear any such burden.

Akihito could therefore go beyond his obligation as an apolitical constitutional monarch and admit responsibility and apologize for Japan’s actions in the Second World War (Seaton 48). In 1992, Emperor Akihito visited China where he was given a good reception.

Choy states that this was a monumental move since it was the first time a Japanese monarch had set foot on Chinese soil in 2000 years (291). This demonstrated the determination by Japan to forge favorable ties with their budding superpower and traditional rival, China.

Akihito has demonstrated courageous leadership in tackling the issue of WWII by trying to encourage reconciliation and minimize the past wrongs that were done by Japan under the rein of his father, Emperor Hirohito.

The emperor Akihito is a strong advocate of the ideals embodied in the postwar constitution and on taking office in 1989, he declared that he had succeed to the Imperial Thrown in accordance with the Constitution of Japan which he swore to uphold (Schmidt 77).

Japan’s monarchy is viewed with concern by some Asian countries as a result of the horrors that were carried out under Emperor Hirohito in the twentieth century. Emperor Akihito has therefore taken it upon himself to allay these fears by sticking to his pacifist convictions (Caprio and Sugita 45).

Emperor Akihito has also been on the forefront for improving foreign relations especially with Japan’s Neighbor and historical rival Korea. Kingston records that Akihito emphasized on promotion a series of reconciliation initiatives towards past enemies of Japan (34).

While the apologies by Akihito were symbolic acts, they had strong political overtones. Ruoff asserts that the Emperor’s apologies to neighboring countries symbolized Japan’s effort to re-enter Asia as a repentant and constructive player in regional polities (243).

The past decades have been characterized by the globalization phenomenon which has been characterized by an integration of economies and cultures. The role of the emperor as a symbolic center for the Japanese has therefore become very important since it has enabled Japan to remain unique in its own way while at the same time adopting from the West.

Schmidt suggests that the emperor historically has and presently continues to act as a “centripetal force in a world where centrifugal change threatens to pull nations apart” (90).

Akihito has styled himself as an Emperor of the masses and this has endeared him with the Japanese people. Following the terrible earthquake of 1995 which resulted in the death of more than 6000 people, Akihito visited the disaster stuck region of Kobe and knelt among survivors at a shelter.

This was unprecedented since emperors have historically kept distance from the masses. Despite Akihito’s evident shift from the traditional roles of the emperor, the office of the emperor is still shrouded in secrecy as was the case in historical times.

This secrecy can be attributed to the Imperial Household Agency (IHA) which is the powerful organization whose sole role is to preserve the emperor system. Schmidt reveals that this organization has been responsible for putting a veil on the goings-on of the royals since it is very sparing with information about the monarchy (78). The emperor today continues to be surrounded by many advisors from the IHA who assist the emperor in his day to day life.

Emperor Akihito has, for the greater part of his 20 year reign, been reluctant to assume a visible role in national affairs. While he did make the occasional public speeches and conferred with the government although not as a decision maker, the emperor has led a life away from the public eye.

However, recent events have made the emperor more visible on both a national and international scale. The Emperor’s popularity and visibility has been greatly increased following the recent natural disasters that have hit Japan. Following the earthquakes early this year, Akihito has taken up the role of state leader making appeals on behalf of the Japanese people.

He made his first nation wide television appearance in March 2011 where he appealed for the Japanese people to assist each other in getting through the natural disaster. This has reinforced the role of the Emperor as a symbol of hope for Japan in times of disaster.


The importance of monarchies in the world has long been declining and many countries have abandoned the system all together. This is not the case in Japan and Schmidt declares that it will be a long time, if ever, before the Japanese openly decry the monarchy or their emperor (88).

Schmidt observes that the emperor system in Japan has been able to survive since it has not made any attempts to acquire any real political power. Emperor Hirohito begun to assume the unusual role as the possessor of autocratic power although he was, even then, compelled to entrust the real authority to the administrative officials.

These attempts at grasping at real political power in the early twentieth centuries resulted in expansionism and culminated in the near destruction of Japan in the Second World War. The American-drafted constitution of 1946 stripped the emperor off any political power and made him a symbolic leader.

Today, the emperor is no longer the large symbol of authority that he was by the seventh century or the sovereign ruler of the state in the nineteenth century. Instead, he is a by the large a ceremonial figure who has some influence but almost no apparent political power.

Even so, the emperor has continued to reinvent himself and Akihito is today a very public figure. He has some political influence and is viewed by the world as the head of Japan. This is not cause for alarm since Japan has a strong democratic system and it is inconceivable that the Emperor will take over power. This thought is reinforced by Kersten who states that there is no danger of Japan shifting from a democracy-centered society to an Emperor-centered on (26).


This paper set out to address the changing role of the emperor of Japan and analyze the facts that necessitated these changes. From the historical overview of the monarchy system in Japan, it has been demonstrated that the emperor and the imperial system of Japan have undergone many transformations over the years.

This transformations have been precipitated both by the internal changes in Japan society and by the global events. The two most significant causes of change were the Meiji Restoration and the Second World War.

The paper has documented the changes in the role of the emperor that the Meiji constitution brought about which included the bestowing of sovereign power to the emperor. Further changes that were necessitated by the defeat of Japan in WWII have also been articulated.

The paper has gone ahead and traced Akihito’s political role from the political icon 20 years ago to the state leader he is today. From this paper, it can be declared that the role of emperor in Japan is constantly evolving to fit in with the realities of the Time.

Despite all the transformation undergone by the emperor and the emperor system, the two remain important aspects of Japanese society. The emperor continues to adapt his roles and has remained relevant in the Japanese context. While it is unlikely that the Emperor will ever regain the sovereign powers and prestige that he held in the Meiji era, it is evident that he will continue to be a key part of Japanese society and culture.

Works Cited

Caprio, Mark, and Sugita Yoneyuki. Democracy in occupied Japan: the U.S. occupation and Japanese politics and society. Boston: Taylor & Francis, 2007. Print.

Choy, Khoon. Japan: between myth and reality. Baltimore: World Scientific, 1995.

Del Testa, David, Lemoine Florence, and Strickland John. Government leaders, military rulers, and political activists. New York: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2001.

Hobsbawm, Edwin, and Ranger Troy. The Invention of Tradition. Cambridge: Cambridge, 1983.

Keene, Donald. Emperor of Japan: Meiji and his world, 1852-1912. Columbia: Columbia University Press, 2002.

Kersten, Roberts. “Revisionism, reaction and the ‘symbol emperor’ in post-war Japan”. Japan Forum 15.1 (2003): 15–31.

Kingston, Jeff. Contemporary Japan: History, Politics, and Social Change since the 1980s. California: John Wiley & Sons, 2011. Print.

Neary, Ian. Leaders and leadership in Japan. New York: Routledge, 1996.

Ohnuki-Tierney, Emiko. “The emperor of Japan as deity (kami)”. Ethnology,30.3 (1998) 1-15.

Ruoff, Kenneth. The people’s emperor: democracy and the Japanese monarchy, 1945-1995. Harvard: Harvard Univ Asia Center, 2001.Print.

Schmidt, Allen. The role of the Japanese emperor: Theory and reality. New Jersey: ProQuest, 1994. Print.

Seaton, Philip. Japan’s contested war memories: the ‘memory rifts’ in historical consciousness of World War II. Boston: Taylor & Francis, 2007. Print.

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