A photograph of the current Imperial Family of Japan, with the former emperor and empress, current emperor and empress, and crown prince and crown princess, seated, with their children standing behind them.

The Imperial Family of Japan: From Their Mythical Origin to Their 2600-Year-Old Succession Line

The Japanese Imperial Family is the oldest hereditary monarchy in the world. Their lineage dates to the 6th century BCE. Traditions and rituals remain unchanged.

In May 2017, Princess Mako, daughter of Crown Prince Akishino and Crown Princess Kiko, announced her marriage to a commoner, Kei Komuro. However, a financial dispute involving Kei Kumoro and his mother postponed the wedding for three years. This led to disapproval of the couple’s upcoming nuptials among the Japanese public. Moreover, it caused Princes Mako to develop Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Held in a government office, a simple wedding ceremony is to take place on 26 October 2021.

This may seem like a royal wedding, but it holds a different meaning than those around the world. In marrying a non-royal, Princess Mako relinquishes her royal title. Media scrutiny of the couple did not lead to this action. It is due to the Imperial Household Law of 1947, a statute of Japanese law dictating the line of imperial succession.

The Japanese Imperial Family holds a firm grasp on tradition. Through their mythical history, they never diverge from their path unless necessary.


Historical Chronicles of Ancient Japan

The Kanji written text of the Kojik on opaque parchment paper
image source: kcpinternational.com

There are two chronicles dictating the history of Ancient Japan and, therefore, the Imperial Family.

The first is Kojiki, the ‘Record of Ancient Matters’, written in 713 AD. It is a compilation of origin myths of the four main islands of Japan. As well, it mentions the mythical origin of the Kami, spirits worshipped in the Shinto religion.

The second is Nihou Shoki, ‘The Chronicles of Japan’, written in 720 AD. It comprises the oldest official history of Japan.


The Mythical Origin of the Imperial Family

Japanese sun goddess, painted colourfully in an ancient Japanese art-style.
image source: wikipedia.com

The myth starts with Amaterasu Omikami, the sun goddess.

Her brother, Susanoo-no-Mikoto, the storm god, killed a weaver as part of a practical joke. Guilt fell upon the sun goddess. She saw herself as a failure for not taking precautions against her brother’s behaviour. Her guilt, consequently, led her to live out her days in a cave, Ama-no-Iwato (Heavenly Rock). She sealed the cave when she entered. As a result, the world plunged into darkness.

Ishikordome, God of mirror makers, created a large mirror.

Tamano’oyo, God of jewellery makers, made a string of jewel beads the length of the mirror.

Ame-no-Uzume-no-Mikoto, a Heavenly prophet, hung the mirror and jewel beads outside the cave. He attempted to draw out Amaterasu. Startled at seeing her reflection, a needed distraction, the gods were able to pull her from the cave. Therefore, they gave the world light again.

Susanoo apologised to his sister and presented her with a sword.

The mirror, the jewel, and the sword became the sanshu-no-jingi, the Imperial Regalia.

Amaterasu gave the Imperial Regalia to her grandson, Ninigi-no-Mikoto, before sending him to earth to rule Japan.

The First Emperor of the Imperial Family

The Imperial Regalia is passed down from generation to generation, emperor to emperor. It started with the son of Ninigi-no-Mikoto, Emperor Jimmu, the first Emperor of Japan. According to myth and legend, he is the descendant of two important figures in the Shinto religion, the sun goddess and the storm god.

Emperor Jimmu ascended to the Chrysanthemum throne in 660 BCE. Till this day, the royal hereditary line remains unbroken. However, there is little sustained evidence verifying the ancient family royal tree.

Stories tell of the emperor possessing mythical powers and conversing with the gods.

He did not involve himself in the day-to-day running of the country. He considered those duties beneath him. Instead, he left the ministers and advisors in charge of the country.

Decline and Rise of Imperial Power

Around the 10th century AD, the elite samurai class grew. Therefore, the monarchy’s influence declined. Their influence further declined because of the emperors’ inability to rule their people in Kyoto. Kyoto is the traditional seat of the monarchy.

Shogunates, Japan’s system of hereditary military governments, ruled on behalf of the empire until the 19th century.

During the Meiji Restoration (1868), Emperor Meiji moved the monarchy to Kyoto. The centralized condition of the emperor’s power brought an end to the shogunate.


Duties of the Imperial Family

A photograph of the current Imperial Family of Japan, with the former emperor and empress, current emperor and empress, and crown prince and crown princess, seated, with their children standing behind them.
image source: english.kyodonews.net

Members of the Imperial Family attend official functions. They take part in religious rituals within the Imperial Palace. All members are not allowed to have last names, personal wealth, or publicly express opinions.

The Imperial Emperor and Empress

Upon succession to the throne, the Crown Prince is given the Imperial Regalia. They became symbols of the emperor’s power and authority.

First, Yata-no-Kagami, the mirror, represents wisdom.

Second, Yasakani-no-Magatama, the jewel, represents benevolence.

Third, Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi, the sword, represents valour.

The emperor is forbidden from engaging in political matters. The purpose of his duties lies with symbolic acts unifying Japan, as well as keeping Japanese traditions alive.

Above all, his main duties are:

  • Visiting dignitaries and world leaders.
  • Hosting state dinners.
  • Making appearances at important festivals.
  • Performing opening ceremonies.
  • Comforting victims of disasters.

Subsequently, his other duties are appointing the Prime Minister and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, witnessing cabinet meetings, awarding honors and receiving honors from foreign ambassadors.

The empress makes public appearances with her husband. She has to walk two respectful steps behind her husband when he enters. Additionally, she only speaks half as much as her husband does to the press.

Japanese Imperial Household Agency

The Japanese Imperial Household Agency manages everything done by the Imperial family in public. A bureaucratic organization of 1124 members, they strictly follow rules based on traditions and rituals.

The Household Agency traces back to 7th century Japan, as mentioned in Imperial records.

The modern Agency was formed in 1869, during the Meiji Era and after the fall of the shogunate.

The reign of Emperor Taisho was when the Agency’s power rose. Along with established regulations, they banned the emperor from giving direct quotes. This protected him from embarrassing himself and the country.

Moreover, the main responsibility of the Household Agency is ensuring the spread of positive information about the Imperial Family. Additionally, they authorize and approve the emperor’s schedule.


Japanese Imperial Law: Women cannot be Empresses

A photograph of the current Emperor and Empress of Japan entering a room in their formal attire, followed by the Crown Prince and Princess of the Imperial Family.
image source: hellomagazine.com

According to Imperial Law, Chapter 1: Succession to the Imperial Throne, Article 1: ‘The Imperial Throne shall be succeeded to by a male offspring in the male line belonging to the Imperial Lineage.’

The succession law became stricter during the Meiji Era (1868 – 1912) as Japan headed towards modernization.

The emperor’s role changed. He was restored as military commander-in-chief. Therefore, women could no longer command the military. Moreover, Meiji leaders saw no sense in having reigning female empresses. Therefore, they established and stressed the male-only succession line.

Another argument against female successors was marriage. Should a princess marry a commoner and have his children, it would weaken the royal blood line. As well, the princess would relinquish her royal title. Therefore, her children, sons in particular, would not carry royal titles. As a result, it would end the male-only heir line.

The succession law took inspiration from the Prussian constitution, which forbade women from ascending to the throne. In 1889, Japan enforced the same law.

The Meiji Era was a period with emphasis placed on the perceived superiority of men over women.

Currently, the law states that only male heirs of emperors on their father’s side can ascend the throne.

The Succession Line of the Imperial Family

The order of the heir line:

  1. The eldest son of the emperor.
  2. The eldest son of the emperor’s eldest son.
  3. Other descendants of the eldest son of the emperor.
  4. The second son of the emperor and his descendants.
  5. Other descendants of the emperor.
  6. Brothers of the emperor and their descendants.
  7. Uncles of the emperor and their descendants.

There are 18 members of the Imperial Family.

However, they are threatened by the succession law. There are 13 royal females and only five royal males. The law prohibits female members from inheriting the Chrysanthemum throne. It is unclear if there will be a change in tradition amidst the crisis.

Emperor Naruhito is the current Emperor of Japan. Three Imperial Family members will succeed him. First, the emperor’s younger brother, Crown Prince Akishino. Second, the Crown Prince’s son, Prince Hisahito. Third, 85-year-old Prince Hitachi, brother to former Emperor Akihito.

The progression of the all-male heir line lies on the shoulders of 15-year-old Prince Hisahito. If he does not marry and produce a male heir, the traditional heir line will be broken.

In short, the heir line of the Imperial Family is under threat.

On the other hand, records of the Imperial family show eight empresses inheriting the throne. Although due to circumstances, their ascension was mainly to prevent power struggles. Neveretheless, they proved to be impeccable rulers of Japan.


The Eight Empresses of the Imperial Family

A Japanese-styled ancient artwork of Empress Suiko, sitting on a field of grass in a blew flowing gown.
image source: commons.wikimedia.com

Empress Suiko

Mikekashiya-hime-no-Mikoto ascended to the throne in 592 AD. She took the name Empress Suiko. It was after the assassination of Emperor Sushun, her predecessor, by a Soga clan member.

Empress Suiko’s mother was a Soga clan member. Her ascension brought political stability.

Additionally,  she aided in the spread of Buddhism and instituted Japan’s first constitution.

She ruled till 628 AD.

Empress Kōgyoku / Saimei

After the death of Emperor Jomei, there was no line of succession.

His wife, Takara, ascended to the throne as Empress Kōgyoku from 642 AD to 645 AD.

She abdicated the throne when her younger brother, Emperor Kōtoku, ascended. Upon his death, there was no clear candidate to succeed him.

Therefore, his elder sister ruled again under the name Saimei from 655 AD to 661 AD.

Empress Jitō

Unonosarara, daughter of Emperor Tenji, was the wife of Emperor Tenmu.

Emperor Tenmu fell ill and left his imperial power to his wife and son, Prince Kusakabe. Oddly enough, the prince never ascended to the Chrysanthemum throne.

His mother succeeded his father as Empress Jitō from 690 AD to 697 AD.

After her son’s death, she continued to rule until her grandson, the future Emperor Monmu, was old enough.

Empress Genmei

Abe-hime was the daughter of Emperor Tenji and half-sister of Empress Jitō. As well, she was the wife of Prince Kusakabe and mother to Emperor Monmu.

Her grandson, the future Emperor Shōmu, was too young to ascend to the throne after his father’s death.

From 707 AD to 715 AD, she ruled Japan as Empress Genmei.

Empress Genshō

Hidaka-hime is the only woman to follow another in the Imperial succession line. After Empress Genmei’s abdication, she ascended to the throne as Empress Genshō. The future Emperor Shōmu was still too young.

She ruled from 715 AD to 724 AD.

Empress Kōken / Shōtoku

Abe was the daughter of Emperor Shōmu. She remains the first woman designated as first in line to the Chrysthemum throne. Although this was official, it was due to her brother’s untimely death.

Under the name, Empress Kōken, she ruled from 749 AD to 758 AD.

She abdicated when her cousin, Emperor Junnin, took the throne.

However, a power struggle between the cousins erupted. Emperor Junnin’s supporters attempted a rebellion to win authority, known as the Fujiwara no Nakamaro Rebellion.

Kōken’s forces, on the other hand, proved victorious in fighting Junnin’s power. Moreover, the Buddhist monk Dyōkō supported her.

As a result, the power struggle left Junnin dethroned.

Taking the name Empress Shōtoku, she ruled from 764 AD to 770 AD.

Empress Meishō

Okiko was the only daughter and child of Emperor Go-Mizunoo. He abdicated after a dispute between the Tokugawa Shogunate and the Imperial court. His daughter succeeded him as Empress Meishō from 1629 to 1943.

After her succession, her father had a son. She ruled until her brother, the future Emperor Go-Kōmoyō, was old enough.

Empress Go-Sakuramachi

Toshiko was the daughter of Emperor Sakuramachi and sister to Emperor Momozono.

She ascended the throne after her brother’s death. His son was too young to become emperor.

As Empress Go-Sakuramachi, sruled from 1762 to 1770, until her nephew was ready to rule as Emperor Go-Momozono.


Cultural Significance of the Imperial Family

An old painting of the Japanese Imperial Family from the 1900s.ial family
image source: theculturetrip.com

The Imperial Family is the oldest hereditary monarchy in the world.

For thousands of years, their traditions and rituals have been kept alive through their blood line.The cultural and traditional aspects of Ancient Japan live through the veins of the Imperial family. It is as if they are walking history.

Many may see their following of tradition as outdated, given the immense modern changes of the 21st century. However, some disagree. Consequently, they see that the following of those traditions gives the Imperial Family their unique identity.

Despite the debates, the succession line of male heirs gives historians a chance to see the growth of the Imperial Family. Their evolution, as well as Japan’s, can be seen in a constant timeline. Every war, battle, and coronation is documented. This is not only to preserve history, but to further prove the Imperial blood line. However, further proof is needed to verify certain parts of their history, but there has been no doubt as yet.

However, many do wonder if certain circumstances will lead to a break in tradition.

Following Imperial law, Princess Mako weds Kei Komuro later this month. All wish her luck on the new journey she is about to take.



“Once-in-a-lifetime meeting.”

-Japanese Proverb.

(Encounters in life are temporary. Therefore, be mindful in treating people with an attitude that leaves no regrets. )

Leave a Reply