Historical essay
The Japanese Imperial Family Invented

The Japanese Imperial Family Invented

In May 2019, as now Emperor Emeritus Akihito passed the Chrysanthemum Throne to his son Emperor Naruhito, the world watched ceremonies and rites that appeared to be the timeless observations of the world’s longest continuous monarchy. Much was written throughout the course of the transition period on the unprecedented aspects of both the Heisei monarchy (1989–2019) and abdication, with journalists and scholars alike commenting on the exclusion of women from the rituals, and the 2017 Parliamentary changes to Japanese law that allowed for the first Japanese imperial abdication in over 200 years.1 But despite the ancient quality of it all, the rules, rites, rituals, and gender norms of the Japanese Imperial Family are actually inventions of the modern era.

The Premodern Imperial Family

Prior to the founding of the modern Japanese state in 1868, the emperor lived in seclusion in the old capital of Kyoto. The Imperial Family claims to have had no interregnum in its 2,500 years, yet emperors took on differing roles in different eras; at points they were powerful figures, and at other moments they were held nearly captive by military rulers in the Imperial Palace. One constant throughout the premodern era was that the emperor was not a public figure, and it’s questionable how much the general populace was even aware of the imperial presence, as the emperors were not seen on national tours nor were their images distributed in publicly accessible visual culture until the modern period. In imperial etiquette, power was associated with practices of concealment.

Triptych ink drawing of Crown Prince Tōgu with his father and mother strolling in Asukayama Park accompanied by ladies of the court.
Crown Prince Tōgu with his father and mother strolling in Asukayama Park accompanied by ladies of the court. (Toyohara Chikanobu/Wikimedia Commons).

The Modern Imperial Family

Women could take the throne in the premodern era, and did so on ten occasions. Within the system of modern imperial law, the first draft as written in 1882 allowed for women to take the throne; however, as women did not have suffrage rights in nineteenth-century Japan, the concept of a female leader was viewed as contradictory, and thus the law was changed in subsequent drafts.2 It was not until the Promulgation of the Constitution in 1889 that women were barred from becoming tennō, or emperor, a non-gendered term in the Japanese language.

In the first decade of the Meiji period (1868-1912), the emperor and the Imperial Family were established as a fundamental part of Japanese society. Emperor Meiji became a central military, religious, and political figure in the late nineteenth century, with his primary wife, Empress Shōken, and his son Crown Prince Haru (later Emperor Taishō) taking on the public role of the model nuclear family, although the Crown Prince was born to an imperial concubine. The term Imperial Family (tennōke) was not widely used until the early Shōwa period (1926-1989), as the emperor was not affiliated with a family until the nineteenth century.3 These public, familial roles were unprecedented in the course of Japanese history, and with the installation of the emperor as the head of society, entirely new rituals, ceremonies, institutions, and societal norms were created to cement the emperor’s position as the father figure of the new, modern Japanese nation.

Ink drawing and photograph mixed media of the Japanese imperial family. The empress sits in a chair in a yellow silk gown, with one small child at her knee. Three other small children stand around the painting, with an older girl in the top left, an older son in the top right, and the emperor in the center of the image, standing behind a green tableclothed small round table.
Emperor Meiji and his family. (Torajirō Kasai/Wikimedia Commons).

The creation of the majority of modern imperial systems took place over the course of more than two decades, with some systems not codified into law until almost forty years after the establishment of the modern era in 1868. Every aspect of imperial life needed to be documented and put into the legal code, including the way imperial events such as weddings, enthronements, and funerals were commemorated. The messages depicted in imperial portraiture, national holidays in honor of the emperor, and private religious rites like those occurring in 2019 all had to be defined and presented to the public in an authoritative fashion. Most of these imperial activities were portrayed and promoted to the public with an air of historicity, yet were only loosely based on ancient precedent. The 2019 Reiwa ascension and coronation ceremonies are only the fourth of their kind to be held; the other three all happened in the twentieth century.

Reacting to Social Change

The Japanese Imperial Family as a modern construction is not stable either. In addition to the dramatic changes of the 1870s, the position of the Imperial Family in public life transformed on four other occasions in the past 150 years, with the monarchy reinventing itself at times of social and political change. Between 1921 and 1926, Emperor Taishō fell ill and his twenty-year-old son Hirohito (the future Emperor Shōwa) was named Regent. As Hirohito was unmarried and unproven, Taishō’s wife Empress Teimei became the independent and public face of the monarchy, maintaining the relevance and popularity of the institution in an era when monarchies were falling globally. Taishō and Teimei were the first monogamous imperial couple, reflecting government policies that encouraged modern family structures.

A black and white photo of a Japanese man sitting in a chair, while his family - five children and his wife, stand around him. His wife is behind everyone else.
The Emperor with his wife Empress Kōjun and their children on December 7, 1941. (Mainichi Shimbun/Wikimedia Commons).

Amid state policies promoting nationalism and empire in the 1930s, the image of the Shōwa emperor was crafted and promoted as that of a military leader, and his wife Empress Kōjun as a gentle, loving mother of their six children. Public images of Shōwa and Kōjun changed again in the postwar period, adjusting to fit the needs of the political state. Also during this time, under the influence of the U.S.-led occupation, the branches of the Imperial Family were curtailed and membership limited to the immediate family of the emperor, leading to the succession crisis we are witnessing today.

In the post-bubble years the Imperial Family changed their image yet again; Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko came to the throne in 1989 and subsequently cultivated an image of intellect and compassion. Akihito publishes on his ichthyological research, and Michiko is active in the field of children’s literature, both as an author and translator. Throughout their reign, the couple was known to travel the nation to show their concern for the people of Japan in times of natural disasters, including the 2011 earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown in Tohoku.

Photo of a family sitting on a couch around a table, on which a young boy is drawing. Two elderly people sit in the middle of the couch, flanked by two younger men, who are flanked by two younger women. Three young women stand behind the couch.
Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko with the Imperial Family. (Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan/Wikimedia Commons)

A Flexible Monarchy

Each of these imperial changes shows the flexibility of the modern Japanese monarchy, a responsiveness which has allowed the lineage to survive. In the future, there will be additional changes to the succession of the imperial lineage; Emperor Naruhito has no son, so power will need to pass to either his daughter or his young nephew, possibly requiring another change in law. Considering Japan’s conservative views on gender roles, expanding the throne to once again allow women to rule is unlikely, but public opinion is gradually shifting. Surveys in April 2019 showed that over 80% of the Japanese public supports female emperors, and a similar number feels a personal affection for the emperor.4 A move to allow women as tennō, while clearly welcomed by a majority of the public, would certainly indicate a massive social change.

Monarchy is concurrently derided as outdated and prized as timeless, yet the survival of this system shows that it is neither. The Japanese imperial household has remained as a symbol of power, history, and tradition due to its ability to change in response to social norms. Its traditions may be invented, but its popularity is real, and the policies, rituals, and public face of monarchy reflect our world in oftentimes conflicting ways.


  1. Motoko Rich, “As a New Emperor Is Enthroned in Japan, His Wife Won’t Be Allowed to Watch,” New York Times, April 29, 2019. Aria Bendix, “Japan’s Lower Parliament Passes Law Allowing It’s Emperor to Abdicate,” The Atlantic, June 2, 2017. Return to text.
  2. Toyama Shigeki, Tennō to kazoku, nihon kindai-shisō taikei Vol 2 (Tokyo: Iwanami, 1989), 132. Return to text.
  3. The concepts surrounding the Imperial Family as a unit were, however, initiated in the late nineteenth century. See: Yokoo Yutaka, Rekidai Tennō to Kōgōtachi (Tokyo: Kashiwa Shobō, 1987), 53. Return to text.
  4. The Japan Times, “Nearly 80% in Japan support having women on the throne and 82% feel affection for new emperor,” May 2, 2019. Return to text.

Alison J. Miller is Assistant Professor of Asian Art History at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee. She is currently completing a book manuscript on images of the women of the Japanese Imperial Family in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

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