Most Influential Emperors of Japan
The emperors of Japan have played a central role in shaping the rich tapestry of the nation’s history and culture. With a lineage dating back over 2,600 years, these revered monarchs have held positions of symbolic and spiritual significance. At such a mind-boggling longevity, the Imperial House of Japan is considered the oldest still in succession.
From the mythical origins of Emperor Jimmu to the modern era, each emperor has left an imprint on Japan’s social, political, and artistic development.
In the article below we take look at the lives, reigns and accomplishments of the most influential emperors of Japan, illuminating their contributions to governance, warfare, cultural patronage, and the enduring legacy of the empire.
Meiji (r. 1852 – 1912)
Emperor Meiji, born Mutsuhito, ascended to the throne of Japan in 1867 and reigned until his death in 1912. His reign, known as the Meiji era, marked a transformative period in Japanese history, characterized by rapid modernization and a shift from feudalism to a centralized nation-state.
His accomplishments were instrumental in shaping modern Japan. Under his leadership, Japan underwent a series of reforms known as the Meiji Restoration. These reforms aimed to modernize and strengthen the country in various aspects. In the nutshell, he played a symbolic role in unifying the nation and establishing a constitutional monarchy.
He embraced Western ideas and technologies and encouraged their adoption in Japan. He sent many students and scholars abroad to study Western systems, such as law, science, and military strategies, in order to bring back knowledge and expertise to modernize the country.
One of Emperor Meiji’s significant achievements was the abolition of the feudal system. The samurai class, which had wielded power for centuries, saw their privileges diminished, and a centralized government structure emerged. This laid the foundation for Japan’s transition to a modern state.
Notable events during his reign include the Meiji Constitution of 1889, which established a constitutional monarchy, and Japan’s victory in the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895) and the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905).
Under his reign, the capital of Japan was moved from Kyoto to Edo, which was renamed Tokyo (“Eastern Capital”). This relocation represented a shift in political power and the centralization of the government.
Jimmu (r. 660 BC – 585 BC)
Emperor Jimmu is a legendary figure in Japanese history and mythology, revered as the first Emperor of Japan. While the historical existence of Emperor Jimmu is a subject of debate, he holds a significant place in Japan’s national narrative.
According to mythology, Emperor Jimmu was believed to have ascended to the throne in 660 BC, establishing the imperial lineage that continues to this day. He is considered the founder of the imperial dynasty and the first ruler to unify various tribes and clans under a central authority.
It is also said that Emperor Jimmu is a direct descendant of the Shinto sun goddess Amaterasu, making him a divine figure in Japanese mythology. His lineage, known as the Imperial House of Japan, is believed to have an unbroken line of succession for over 2,600 years.
Jimmu best known for his mythical eastward journey (known as the “Jimmu’s Eastern Expedition”) from the region of Kii (present-day Wakayama Prefecture). He encountered various challenges, including battles with local tribes, as he sought to establish his rule over the land.
Hirohito (r. 1926 – 1989)
Emperor Hirohito, born on April 29, 1901, and passing away on January 7, 1989, was the 124th Emperor of Japan. He reigned from 1926 until his death, with his reign name changing from Taishō to Shōwa upon ascending the throne. Hirohito’s reign witnessed significant events in Japan’s history, including World War II and the post-war period.
His role World War II remains a subject of historical debate. While he was seen as a symbol of Japanese unity and authority, it is believed that he had limited involvement in political decision-making. After Japan’s surrender in 1945, he publicly announced Japan’s acceptance of the Potsdam Declaration, effectively ending the war.
Following Japan’s surrender and the end of World War II, Emperor Hirohito played a pivotal role in the post-war reconstruction and democratization of Japan. Under his reign, Japan experienced significant economic and societal changes, known as the “Japanese economic miracle,” which propelled the country to become one of the world’s leading industrial powers.
The Emperor presided over a constitutional monarchy. The post-war Constitution of Japan, known as the “Constitution of Japan” or the “Postwar Constitution,” came into effect in 1947. This document established the emperor as a “symbol of the State and of the unity of the people,” with no political power.
After his death, he was posthumously referred to as Emperor Shōwa, derived from the era name of his reign. This naming convention is customary for deceased emperors.
Kanmu (r. 781 – 806)
Emperor Kanmu, also known as Emperor Kammu, was the 50th emperor of Japan. He reigned from 781 to 806 and played a significant role in shaping the political and cultural landscape of Japan during the early Heian period.
Born on February 4, 736 to Prince Shirakabe (later Emperor Kōnin), Emperor Kanmu is best known for relocating the capital of Japan from Nara to Heian-kyo, present-day Kyoto. This move was motivated by a desire to establish a new capital that would be less influenced by the powerful Buddhist monasteries of Nara and to consolidate imperial authority.
The emperor sought to strengthen the central government’s control and diminish the influence of regional clans and Buddhist temples. He implemented administrative reforms, including the establishment of provincial officials known as kokushi, to ensure efficient governance throughout the country.
He also established a new imperial guard force called the Sekkan-ke, composed of powerful noble families loyal to the imperial court. The Sekkan-ke played a crucial role in protecting the emperor’s interests and maintaining political stability.
Emperor Kanmu’s reign marked a significant transition in the imperial succession system. He initiated a practice called sokui-no-rei, which formalized the abdication of emperors in favor of their chosen heirs. This practice allowed for smoother transitions and ensured stability within the imperial lineage.
Emperor Kanmu encouraged the development of Japanese literature and the arts. He sponsored the compilation of historical chronicles, such as the Shoku Nihongi, which provided valuable insights into early Japanese history and culture.
Antoku (r. 1180 – 1185)
Emperor Antoku’s reign was brief, and his life was intertwined with the dramatic events of the Genpei War. Despite his young age, his story has captured the imagination of many, with his tragic fate and the symbolism associated with his drowning. His reign serves as a poignant reminder of the tumultuous nature of medieval Japan and the conflicts that shaped its history.
The most notable event of Emperor Antoku’s reign was the Battle of Dannoura in 1185. It was the final and decisive battle of the Genpei War. The Minamoto forces, led by Minamoto no Yoshitsune and Minamoto no Yoritomo, defeated the Taira clan. During the battle, Emperor Antoku, then just a child of six years old, was taken by Taira no Munemori’s wife, along with the clan’s regalia, and jumped into the sea to avoid capture.
His life ended tragically during the Battle of Dannoura. His drowning in the sea, along with the Taira regalia, marked the symbolic end of the Taira clan’s power. This event is often romanticized in Japanese literature and folklore, portraying Emperor Antoku as a tragic figure.
The tale of Emperor Antoku and his maternal family became the central theme of the epic poem “The Tale of the Heike” during the Kamakura period. This literary masterpiece delved into the narrative of the Taira clan, also known as the Heike, which included Emperor Antoku’s mother. The poem explores the rise and fall of the Taira clan, depicting their conflicts, struggles, and ultimately their defeat in the Genpei War. The “Tale of the Heike” stands as a significant work of literature that immortalizes the story of Emperor Antoku and his family, portraying their triumphs and tragic downfall in a captivating narrative.
Go-Daigo (r. 1318 – 1339)
Emperor Go-Daigo is closely associated with the Kemmu Restoration, a period of attempted imperial restoration and the overthrow of the Kamakura shogunate. Frustrated with the shogunate’s dominance, he sought to regain political power and return authority to the imperial court.
Following his exile after an initial failed uprising against the shogunate, he established a rival imperial court known as the Southern Court in Yoshino. The Northern Court, recognized by the shogunate, represented a division within the imperial family and Japan’s political landscape.
Ashikaga Takauji, a powerful samurai general, initially supported Emperor Go-Daigo but later turned against him. Takauji played a crucial role in establishing the Ashikaga shogunate and supporting the rival Northern Court, leading to a protracted conflict between the Southern and Northern Courts.
Emperor Go-Daigo was eventually captured by Ashikaga forces and exiled to Oki Island in 1331. Despite his capture, he remained a symbol of resistance against the shogunate and continued to rally supporters.
After Emperor Go-Daigo’s death, his grandson, Emperor Chōkei, would eventually achieve the restoration of imperial power in 1336 with the establishment of the Muromachi period and the Ashikaga shogunate.
Taishō (r. 1912 – 1926)
Emperor Taishō ascended to the throne at the age of 31 in 1912, but due to his poor health and recurring mental illness, a regency was established. His father, Emperor Meiji, appointed his son’s uncle, Prince Regent Hirohito (later known as Emperor Showa), to act as a regent and carry out imperial duties on behalf of Emperor Taishō.
He reigned during a period of constitutional monarchy in Japan. The Meiji Constitution, which had been established during the reign of Emperor Taishō’s father, Emperor Meiji, remained in effect. The emperor’s role during this era was primarily symbolic, with limited political power.
The Taishō era saw significant cultural developments and an expansion of artistic expression. It was a time of literary and artistic flourishing, with notable figures such as Natsume Soseki and Akutagawa Ryunosuke making significant contributions to Japanese literature.
One of the major challenges faced during Emperor Taishō’s reign was the Great Kantō Earthquake of 1923. This devastating earthquake resulted in the loss of thousands of lives and widespread destruction in Tokyo and surrounding areas. The emperor played a symbolic role in providing comfort and support to the affected population.
Emperor Taishō was succeeded by his son, Hirohito, who would later become Emperor Showa. Emperor Showa’s reign marked a significant period in Japanese history, encompassing World War II and Japan’s post-war reconstruction.
Akihito (r. 1989 – 2019)
This emperor is best known for being the son of Emperor Hirohito (Emperor Showa) and the father of the current Emperor, Emperor Naruhito.
He was born on December 23, 1933, and reigned from 1989 to 2019. Similar to his father, Emperor Akihito held a primarily symbolic and ceremonial role as the emperor. The post-war Constitution of Japan defines the emperor as “the symbol of the State and of the unity of the people,” with no political power.
Regardless, he and his wife, Empress Michiko, engaged in various public activities, including visits to disaster-stricken areas, meetings with foreign dignitaries, and promoting cultural and social initiatives. They were known for their empathy and connection with the Japanese people.
He played a significant role in promoting reconciliation and expressing remorse for Japan’s actions during World War II. He made visits to countries affected by Japan’s wartime actions, including China and South Korea, expressing condolences and fostering relationships.
During his reign, the era name was Heisei, which means “achieving peace.” The era name changes with each emperor and reflects the spirit and aspirations of their reign. Heisei ended with Emperor Akihito’s abdication in 2019.
Shōmu (r. 724 – 749)
Emperor Shōmu (701 – 756), was the 45th emperor of Japan. His reign, which lasted from 724 to 749, marked a significant period in Japanese history, particularly in terms of Buddhism and cultural development.
Reigning from 724 to 749, Emperor Shōmu is renowned for his patronage of Buddhism. He played a crucial role in the promotion and expansion of Buddhism throughout Japan. Under his reign, Buddhism became a state-sponsored religion, and numerous temples and monasteries were constructed.
Emperor Shōmu’s reign coincided with the Nara period, a time of cultural and political growth in Japan. It was during this period that the capital was moved to Heijō-kyō (present-day Nara), and the foundations of Japanese Buddhism and Chinese-influenced government systems were established.
He is credited with the creation of the Shōsōin, a repository located within the Tōdai-ji temple complex in Nara. The Shōsōin houses a vast collection of artifacts from the 8th century, providing valuable insights into the culture, art, and daily life of the era.
One of Emperor Shōmu’s most significant achievements was the construction of the Daibutsu (Great Buddha) at Tōdai-ji temple. This colossal bronze statue, completed in 752, stands at a height of over 15 meters (49 feet) and is considered a masterpiece of Buddhist art.
In 749, he abdicated in favor of his daughter, Princess Takano, who would become Empress Kōken (reign: 749 – 758). He then went on to become a Buddhist priest, the first retired emperor of Japan to do so.
Kōmei (r. 1846 – 1867)
Emperor Kōmei’s reign witnessed the rise of powerful regional clans, particularly the Chōshū and Satsuma clans, which played pivotal roles in the overthrow of the Tokugawa shogunate and the restoration of imperial rule.
He was known for holding strong anti-foreign sentiments and opposing the unequal treaties that Japan had been forced to sign with Western powers, particularly the Treaty of Amity and Commerce with the United States. He saw these treaties as threats to Japan’s sovereignty and traditional way of life.
In 1863, Kōmei issued an imperial edict known as the “Order to Expel Barbarians.” This edict called for the expulsion of all Western powers from Japan and ignited tensions between the imperial court and the shogunate.
Emperor Kōmei passed away in 1867, just a few months before the shogunate was officially abolished. His death allowed for the ascension of his son, Emperor Meiji, who would play a crucial role in the modernization and westernization of Japan during the Meiji period.
Monmu (r. 697 – 707)
Emperor Monmu’s ascension to the throne followed a succession dispute within the imperial family. After the death of his predecessor, Emperor Tenmu, there was a power struggle between his consort, Empress Jitō, and her nephew, Prince Ōtsu. The conflict eventually led to the establishment of Emperor Monmu as the next emperor.
He is credited with the compilation of the Taihō Code, a legal code that aimed to establish a centralized and efficient administrative system. Although the code was completed during the reign of Emperor Monmu’s successor, it was an important development during his reign.
He also implemented agricultural reforms to address issues related to land ownership and taxation. These reforms aimed to ensure fair distribution of land and to enhance agricultural productivity.
Emperor Monmu passed away around the age of 23, and he was succeeded by Empress Genmei, his mother.
Other interesting facts about the Emperors of Japan
Here are some key facts about Emperors of Japan that you probably did not know:
- In 1858, as a young crown prince, Emperor Meiji signed the Treaty of Amity and Commerce with the United States, opening Japan to foreign trade and establishing diplomatic relations. This marked the end of Japan’s policy of isolation and initiated a period of increased international engagement.
- Emperor Jimmu is credited with introducing various cultural practices and institutions in Japan. These include the establishment of social hierarchies, the introduction of agriculture and land cultivation, and the development of military strategies.
- February 11th is celebrated in Japan as National Foundation Day (Kigensetsu) to honor the mythical founding of the nation by Emperor Jimmu. It is a national holiday that symbolizes the unity and continuity of the Japanese people.
- Emperor Akihito, the father of the current Emperor Naruhito, made history as the first Japanese emperor in over two centuries to abdicate. He stepped down in 2019, citing his advanced age and health concerns, and passed the throne to his son.
- Emperor Hirohito, posthumously known as Emperor Showa, holds the record for the longest reign in Japanese history. He reigned from 1926 until his death in 1989, spanning a period of 62 years.
- Empress Suiko became the first reigning empress of Japan in 593. She ruled during the Asuka period and played a significant role in promoting Buddhism in the country.
- After an emperor’s death, a posthumous name is given to honor their reign. These names are often derived from significant events or ideals associated with their era. For example, Emperor Meiji’s posthumous name is Meiji Tennō, which translates to Emperor Meiji.
- During his reign, Emperor Hirohito’s voice was seldom heard in public. His speeches were generally delivered by proxy, most notably by his grand steward, as part of his ceremonial duties. This practice changed in 1945 when he made his first radio broadcast, known as the “Gyokuon-hōsō,” announcing Japan’s surrender.
- Emperor Akihito made history as the first Japanese emperor in over two centuries to abdicate. On April 30, 2019, he stepped down from the throne, citing his advanced age and health concerns. He went on to hold the title Jōkō, which “Retired Emperor” (i.e. Emperor Emeritus). The abdication led to the start of the new imperial era known as Reiwa, with his son, Emperor Naruhito, ascending to the throne.
- In Japan’s history, a total of 64 emperors have abdicated. They include, Shōmu (reign: 724-749), Junnnin (reign: 758-764), Suzaku (reign: 930-946), Go-Uda (reign: 1267-1324), and Kōkaku (reign: 1171-1840)
Questions and answers
Who is the current emperor of Japan?
The current emperor of Japan is Emperor Naruhito. He ascended to the throne on May 1, 2019, following the abdication of his father, Emperor Akihito.
He was born on February 23, 1960 and is the eldest son of his parents – Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko.
He is married to Empress Masako, and they have one daughter, Princess Aiko. Emperor Naruhito’s reign continues the Heisei era, which began with his father’s reign, but the era name changed to Reiwa upon his ascension.
Who was the Emperor of Japan during World War II?
The Emperor of Japan during World War II was Emperor Hirohito. He reigned from 1926 until his death in 1989. Emperor Hirohito played a central role in the events leading up to and during World War II. Although the extent of his direct involvement in the decision-making process and the war itself remains a topic of historical debate, he was seen as a symbol of unity and authority for the Japanese people. After Japan’s surrender in 1945, Emperor Hirohito made a radio broadcast, known as the “Gyokuon-hōsō,” announcing Japan’s acceptance of the Potsdam Declaration, effectively ending the war and initiating a new era of post-war reconstruction in Japan.
How are emperors of Japan chosen?
The emperors of Japan are not chosen through a system of election or inheritance based on primogeniture (the eldest child inheriting the throne). Instead, the Japanese imperial succession follows a strictly hereditary system known as agnatic primogeniture, where the throne is typically passed from a reigning emperor to his eldest male offspring.
The succession traditionally follows the paternal line, meaning that the emperor’s biological or adopted sons have priority over other relatives, including daughters. In cases where there are no eligible male heirs, the succession may pass to collateral branches of the imperial family or even adoptive heirs.
How many emperors has Japan had?
Japan has had 126 emperors. The first emperor, Emperor Jimmu, is traditionally believed to have ascended to the throne around 660 BC. The current emperor, Emperor Naruhito, is the 126th emperor. However, it’s important to note that the historical accuracy and details of the earliest emperors are the subject of debate and mythological interpretation.
Has there ever been a female emperor in Japan?
The succession law in Japan has traditionally followed male-only primogeniture, where the throne passes from a reigning emperor to his eldest male offspring. As a result, the line of succession has remained exclusively male throughout Japanese history.
However, it’s worth noting that there have been several influential female figures within the Japanese imperial family, such as Empress Suiko and Empress Kōgyoku, who served as regents and played significant roles in governance during their respective reigns. Additionally, there have been female empresses who held the title of Empress Consort as the wife of an emperor, but they did not rule as reigning empresses.
Who was the longest-reigning emperor of Japan?
The longest-reigning emperor of Japan is Emperor Hirohito, who reigned for a total of 62 years and 2 months. He ascended to the throne on December 25, 1926, following the death of his father, Emperor Taishō, and remained emperor until his death on January 7, 1989. Emperor Hirohito’s reign is commonly referred to as the Shōwa era.