[From December Issue 2012]
In Japan, December 23 is the Emperor’s Birthday and a national holiday. On this day citizens can visit the Emperor at the Imperial Palace to give him their good wishes. The Emperor and royal family greet them from their balcony. The same ceremony takes place on January 2 to celebrate the New Year. At present the Emperor is well-liked by citizens in his symbolic role as the representative of the Japanese people.
In Japan in addition to the Western calendar, there is a unique way of numbering years that reflects the period of the Emperor’s reign. This year is “Heisei 24.” This means that it has been 24 years since the current Emperor’s accession to the throne. Before “Heisei” was “Showa.” Before that was “Taisho” and the even further back was “Meiji.” Japan’s modernization started with the Meiji period, when the Emperor held the highest rank in the nation, with all citizens as his subjects.
In the Showa era Japan had set its sights on becoming a military power and the Emperor was worshipped by the people as a god. After the Second World War, except for attending important national ceremonies and extending royal diplomacy, Emperors have not been involved in politics. However, the Emperor is still considered to be special and sacred. The media uses respectful language when they write articles about the Emperor. It is taboo to criticize the Emperor.
This year marks the 1300th year since the “Kojiki” (the Record of Ancient Matters), which is believed to be the Japan’s oldest book, was created. The origins of Japan and its emperors, including Emperor Jinmu, who was regarded as Japan’s first Emperor, is described in the Kojiki. In the Kojiki the emperor is depicted as being the descendent of the gods, but many scholars believe that this was written by the rulers of that time to legitimize their own government, thus making it doubtful whether early emperors actually existed or not. However, it has been proved that the Emperor’s family bloodline can be traced back for more than 1500 years, giving it the longest lineage in the world.
The next Emperor in line is the Crown Prince (the Emperor’s eldest son), but there has been some debate about who comes after that. The Crown Prince’s only child is a girl. His younger brother, Prince Akishinonomiya, has a boy. Japanese Emperors have traditionally been male, though some female Emperors existed in the distant past. Some people say that women should be allowed to become Emperor, but others feel strongly that only men should be Emperors.
Emperors at Turning Points in Japanese History
The 16th Emperor Nintoku
In Sakai City, Osaka Prefecture, is the Daisen Burial Mound, one of the world’s largest tombs. This is said to be the mausoleum of fourth century Emperor Nintoku, who is known for improving the quality of life of his citizens with such policies as instigating a three year tax free period. However, it is a mystery why such huge tombs suddenly appeared in the ancient era.
The 77th Emperor Goshirakawa
In the 12th century Goshirakawa, with the support of the Heike and Genji samurai clans, was victorious in his battle to succeed as Emperor. By skillfully manipulating these two rising samurai powers, he struggled to maintain his rule as Emperor. This, however, was one of the biggest factors that lead to a feudal government replacing the aristocracy.
The 122nd Emperor Meiji
In the latter half of the 19th century, a revolution, to restore the Emperor to power in place of the shogun government, took place. As the first Emperor of the new government, Meiji became a symbol of Japan’s modernization. He was enshrined at Meiji Shrine, a sightseeing spot near Harajuku Station in Tokyo.