Historical essay
Japan’s Once and Future Female Emperors

Japan’s Once and Future Female Emperors

With the abdication today of the Japanese emperor, Akihito, and the passage of the throne to his son, talk has emerged yet again about the future of Japan’s imperial family and its insistence on male dynastic succession. But would it be so revolutionary to put a woman on the throne? History tells us no. In Japan’s past, eight women have served as emperor over ten reigns. Women’s exclusion is a modern development.

When I was an undergraduate in 2005, there was a period of time when none of my professors would stop talking about the Japanese imperial family. Princess Kiko, the wife of the emperor’s second son, was pregnant. If it wasn’t a boy, the government would face a crisis: all other children in the direct line of succession to Japan’s imperial throne were girls. A private Advisory Council on the Imperial Household Law had already been called to discuss the feasibility of a modern-day female emperor—Kiko’s pregnancy signaled in a very real way that the government might have to reconsider their male-only succession rule. Many politicians were relieved when Kiko gave birth to a little prince, abruptly halting all talk of revisions and returning the question of gender parity in the imperial house to the realm of idle speculation.

Women lost the right to ascend the throne in 1889, when the Imperial Household Law (Kōshitsu tenpan 皇室典範) first went into effect alongside Japan’s first constitution, the Meiji Constitution (Meiji kenpō 明治憲法). In the early 1880s, the oligarchy tasked with transforming Japan into a “modern” nation that could contend with Western foreign powers restructured Japan’s premodern government following the model of the Prusso-German constitutional monarchy. The Prussian constitution forbade women to succeed the throne; Japan, too, adopted a stricter definition of what it meant to be an emperor.1

Tennō: The Heavenly Sovereign

The word “emperor” primes us to think of a Western-style marriage, an emperor/empress dichotomy that prioritizes patrilineal succession and elevates the emperor over his empress. But, like “prince” in Game of Thrones’ Old Valyrian, the term we now translate as “emperor,” tennō 天皇, does not carry any gender-specific connotations; a better translation would be “heavenly sovereign.”2 Even so, outside of scholarship on premodern Japan, female sovereigns are rarely referred to in English as anything but “empress.” Most casual readers would never know or fully understand that they ruled in their own right as tennō. Yet these were not always empresses; they were female emperors.

To be fair, some of the women who became emperors had been, in fact, empresses. But marriage did not function in premodern Japan in the way we think of it today, and to become an empress was to be conferred the title and office of empress (kōgō 皇后), the highest-ranking among many of the emperor’s consorts (who often varied in social status). Some female emperors previously served as empress, but not all. The following women became emperor, including two who took the throne twice under different names:

  • Emperor Suiko (reigned 592–628)3
  • Emperor Kōgyoku (r. 642–645)
  • Emperor Saimei (r. 655–661) [reascension]
  • Emperor Jitō (r. 686–697)
  • Emperor Genmei (r. 707–715)
  • Emperor Genshō (r. 715–724)
  • Emperor Kōken (r. 749–758)
  • Emperor Shōtoku (r. 764–770) [reascension]
  • Emperor Meishō (r. 1629–1643)
  • Emperor Go-Sakuramachi (r. 1762–1771)

The six ancient emperors who ruled before 800 CE, especially, were powerful sovereigns who helped shape the Japanese archipelago’s governance and religious landscape from its earliest years. And although the early modern emperors had less power than their ancient counterparts (having a parallel military government also present that stymied their roles as rulers), their cultural influence as ritual figures and authorities on art and poetics was still significant.

Success and Scandal under Emperor Kōken/Shōtoku4

History loves a good scandal. And if recent history has taught us anything, it’s that they often define women’s lives and careers, usually against their will. This was as true in the eighth century as the twenty-first. Emperor Kōken (713–770), for example, is best known as the ruler who had an illicit affair with a priest who aspired to take the throne. But Kōken had far more to her name as tennō than just an amorous encounter, particularly one that may not have ever even happened.

Despite being the sixth woman to inherit the throne, Kōken was the first woman to ever receive the title of crown prince (kōtaishi 皇太子, technically another gender-neutral term), securing her position in 738 as successor through the official court channels at age seventeen. Female emperors before her had either begun as empresses, been selected to rule until a younger male heir came of age, or both. This was not the case with Kōken, who was selected, as any man would have been, to preserve the imperial line. She spent about ten years as crown prince under her father, Emperor Shōmu, learning the ropes of rulership as his right hand. She took the throne in 749.

A large seated statue of the Great Buddha, with its eyes closed and one hand palm up the other palm out. In an ornate wood-walled enclorsure with gold smaller buddha statues arranged in a circle behind it.
The Great Buddha (Daibutsu) at Tōdaiji in Nara, Japan. (Paula R. Curtis/Nursing Clio)

Throughout her reign, Kōken issued edicts on a variety of topics, including investitures, court affairs, diplomatic missions to China and the Korean peninsula, condemnations of provincial misgovernment, and legal statutes. A great number of her proclamations relate to Buddhism, of which she was a devout follower and which had only in the last century or so gained steady acceptance in the archipelago. Work on the Daibutsu (Great Buddha), a recasting of which survives as a world heritage site today, began under Shōmu in 740, but was ultimately completed under Kōken’s guidance in 752. At its completion ceremony, Kōken was the leader of the grandest Buddhist assembly of its time, with over ten thousand monks in attendance and a vast number of musical performers. Kōken was known as a devoted sponsor of Buddhist sutra copying, art production, and priests, even bringing famed practitioners from China to establish temples.

Towards the end of her first reign, Kōken weathered high-profile rebellions and eventually abdicated to care for her mother and close advisor, Empress Dowager Kōmyō. But even after her abdication, Kōken was actively involved in matters of state while her successor, Emperor Junnin, ruled. Kōken expanded her power at court during her time as retired emperor. During an illness, she became close with the priest Dōkyō, who looked after her physical health and provided her spiritual guidance. When she was recovered, she took the tonsure, becoming a nun, and issued a formal chastisement of Emperor Junnin, calling for a split of imperial power between them. After a brief court struggle, Junnin was deposed, and Kōken took the throne yet again, this time as Emperor Shōtoku.5

The history of Shōtoku’s reign has largely been overshadowed by her relationship with Dōkyō. Dōkyō was a learned priest in both Buddhism and Confucianism, and other arts. He received a number of conspicuous court and religious titles in his time as Shōtoku’s close advisor, leading to accusations that he had undue influence over her. In 769, an oracle from Hachiman Shrine supposedly stated that Dōkyō should be made emperor for peace to come to the realm. This led to an upset at court over the suspicious circumstances of the oracle’s creation, though Dōkyō, having the high esteem of the emperor, was never punished in connection to the crime of falsifying a message from the deities. Dōkyō remained by Shōtoku’s side until her death in 770. Ultimately, despite Shōtoku’s extensive accomplishments in governance and civil engineering, and her sponsorship of Buddhist arts and learning, historians have tended to focus primarily on speculation about the nature of her relationship with Dōkyō.

In the centuries that followed, premodern Japanese writers drew their own conclusions about and sensationalized the supposedly unseemly nature of their relationship, even though the eighth-century histories said only that Dōkyō received the “favor” or “affection” of Shōtoku, neither sexually suggestive terms.6 In modern scholarship, Shōtoku has often been painted as a lonely, desperate woman who was taken in by a beguiling man, rather than a strong-willed ruler who skillfully managed political affairs for two decades.

Japan’s nineteenth-century politicians considered themselves modern and progressive in adopting Western modes of governance and social custom. But in that process, they rewrote and obscured a long history of women in power. Premodern Japan provides us a glimpse of a time when some women ruled, and ruled well. It wasn’t a golden age by any means—scandals still shaped the lives and histories of women like Emperor Kōken/Shōtoku before and after their deaths, and the bias of elite, patriarchal structures still loomed large in ancient times. But today, as Emperor Akihito abdicates and with the line of succession on the minds of many, most people don’t even know that there ever were female emperors at all.


  1. The exclusion of women was not solely a byproduct of the constitution, however, and was debated among politicians and pundits at the time. Hitomi Tonomura, “Royal Roles, Wider Changes: Understanding Japan’s Gender Relations from a Historical Perspective,” in Japanese Women: Lineage and Legacies, edited by Amy McCreedy Thernstrom (October, 2005): 15-18. Return to text.
  2. Joan R. Piggott has been a strong advocate of leaving tennō untranslated or using the term “heavenly sovereign.” In her explanation, terms such as “emperor,” “empire,” and “imperial” invoke coercive military political formation not seen in early Japan. Furthermore, under the Chinese model from which rulers in the archipelago drew, royalty was conceptualized as “all under heaven” (tenka 天下). Joan R. Piggott, The Emergence of Japanese Kingship(Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997), 8-9. Return to text.
  3. All dates given in the Common Era (CE). Return to text.
  4. The information provided below draws on my translations of the “Emperor Kōken” and “Emperor Shōtoku” chapters of Takagi Kiyoko, The Eight Female Emperors of Japan: A Brief Introduction to Their Lives and Legacies. Tokyo: Fuzambo International, 2018. Return to text.
  5. E. Patricia Tsurumi, “Japan’s Early Female Emperors,” Historical Reflections 8, no. 1 (Spring 1981): 47. Return to text.
  6. Ross Bender, “The Hachiman Cult and the Dokyo Incident,” Monumenta Nipponica, Vol. 34, no. 2 (Summer, 1979), 139. Return to text.

Paula R. Curtis is a PhD Candidate at the University of Michigan studying premodern Japanese history, particularly during Japan's medieval period. Beginning in 2019, she will be a postdoctoral research associate at Yale University's Council on East Asian Studies.