Tennosei (Emperor System) in Japan (天皇制)

The Tennosei (Imperial Family system) is a state system with the emperor acting as the monarch or titular head. It sometimes specifically indicates the state system after the Meiji period (modern Tennosei) when the emperor acted as the head or symbol of the state. The Constitution of the Empire of Japan (Meiji Constitution) states the Emperor as the head of state and the Constitution of Japan placing the Emperor as the symbol of Japan and of the unified citizens of Japan. From the end of the Meiji period until the end of the World War II to describe the system as Tennosei (Emperor System) was to commit blasphemy; the system was called kokutai made up of two kanji (fundamental character of the nation) in the Chinese way of reading and kunigara or kuniburi in the Japanese way of reading; the term was derived from the Records of Emperor Cheng of Han in Kanjo (Historical records of the Han Dynasty). Even now the expression is something that supporters of the imperial family would rather try to avoid.


The word 'Tennosei' was a translated term of the German word 'Monarchie' which means 'monarchy' in English and was originally a new word Marxists coined. In 1922, the Japanese Communist Party was secretly formed with a slogan of 'abolition of the monarchy'. Comintern These of 1932 (so-called these of 32) likened the Japanese monarchism to the tsarism of Russia which was the absolute monarchy and rendered the Japanese monarchism as 'Tennosei' (Emperor System) and defined that the combination of the Emperor system, parasitic landowners (privileged people under the feudal system) and bourgeoisie (monopolistic capitalists) is the essence of the Japanese power mechanism. Although the word 'Tennosei' was for the Communist party until the end of the World War II and was not generally recognized, the word now has no connection with the Communist party and is widely used even in the media. However, because of the origin of the word Tennosei, many people avoid the word and the expression Koshitsu (Imperial family) is quite often used; also there exist people who are still adamantly using the word kokutai (fundamental character of the nation). Some historians are against applying the word Tennosei to the state system before recent times because the Emperor was not in the front line of the national governing system.

Below is an explanation about the Emperors and the political system since ancient Japan.

Ancient Times

Historically, it is thought that the Imperial Family came from the Great King or Okimi of the 'Yamato Sovereignty' (Amenoshita Shiroshimesu Okimi) that existed in the Kofun period. The appearance of the large keyhole-shaped tomb mounds from the mid third century, indicates the establishment of a unified authority and the family of the Great King at that time are thought to be the ancestors of the Imperial Family. As for the origin of the Great King's family, there were several theories, such as having the lineage of Himiko of Yamataikoku (Yamatai Kingdom) in the Yayoi period as the King's ancestors, the dynasty of the King's ancestor was established in the fourth century, and onwards. The Great King at that time was thought to be responsible not only for the military aspect but also for the rituals and ceremonies.

With the onset of the eighth century, the Ritsuryo system taken from China was implemented and the centralized authoritarian rule centering on Emperor was established; accordingly, Emperor directly administered the government (the Emperor System in the ancient sovereignty). At that time, Chinese-style posthumous names for all the Emperors in history were selected. At the beginning of the time when the Ritsuryo system was established, the position of the Emperor in the political decision making was to be unquestioned but from around the ninth century, the noble hierarchy gradually started to have the right of decision making. During the tenth century, the regency of the Fujiwara clan (Fijiwara-Hokke, the Northern House of the Fujiwara clan) who had a strong matrimonial relationship with the Emperor, was established in the central position of decision making. At the end of the 11th century the government by a retired emperor in which a retired emperor who is the reign of the Imperial Family reigns as the real king (Chiten no kimi [the retired emperor in power]) began. The status of the Fujiwara clan (Sekkan-ke [line of regents and advisers]) deteriorated in comparison to the Imperial Family. While in the position of the Emperor, there were so many restrictions but once they abdicated the throne to become Joko (Retired Emperor), they became free and gained complete power as the monarch. It was the middle rank of nobles who supported the Cloister government.

Medieval Period

When the samurai government was established in Kamakura (in 1192), it became a dual government of the Chotei (Imperial Court), centered with the Emperor and the retired Emperor and Bakufu (samurai government) with a shogun in the middle. In the Jokyu War, the Bakufu side won. However, the power of the Emperor side had not weakened yet; when the Kamakura Bakufu fell, Emperor Godaigo restored the direct rule.
Refer to the section of 'Kenmu no Shinsei (The new government of Emperor Godaigo).'

When the Muromachi Bakufu was established (in 1338), the Chotei was split into Hokucho (the Northern Court) and Nancho (the Southern Court). Although the authority of Emperor was weakened after a long period of warfare which occurred following the split of the Imperial Court, the Imperial Court continued to exist mainly as the successor of culture and tradition.

Modern Times

Neither Nobunaga ODA nor Hideyoshi TOYOTOMI denied the existence and authority of the Emperor and by using the Emperors in their politics, they strengthened their own authority.
The authority of the Emperor was preserved under the Edo Bakufu (from 1603); but as seen in the Shie Incident Emperors had almost no political power except few occasions such as deciding the name of an era; (Shie Incident refers to the incident in which Emperor Gomizuno gave purple robes, symbolizing the highest order of priesthood, to Daitoku-ji Temple and Myoshin-ji Temple in 1627 without the approval of Bakufu and caused Bakufu to take back the purple robes to deny the authority of Emperor Gomizuno.)

Because the Bakufu chose Shushigaku (Neo-Confucianism) as the academic subject to be studied, Sonnoron (Imperialism), which placed 'Mikado' (the Emperor) as the legitimate ruler rather than a hegemon of the Tokugawa clan, became popular among people such as the Mito-Tokugawa family (Mito Domain).

Argument of Sonno-joi (slogan advocating reverence for the Emperor and the expulsion of foreigners)

At the end of the Edo period, the Sonno-joi argument occurred and the Emperor became the center of the anti-shogunate movement. The Sonno-joi became a political thought to establish a system with the Emperor at its center and to keep independence from foreign powers and destabilized the political situation at the end of the Edo period on a grand scale. The Ikkunpanmin Shiso (the thought where constitutional authority was given to only one ruler and any discrimination and distinction against social status were generally not allowed among people) is spurious thought on equality, but it also became an ideology to deny the authority of shogunate. However, some Sonno-joi supporters were calling Emperor 'gyoku' or 'tama' and they were aware that Emperor was a tool for them to use for attaining the political power.

Meiji Restoration

When the Edo Bakufu fell (in 1868), the new Meiji government brought back the Daijokan system (the Department of State in Japan during the Nara and Heian periods) for the Restoration of Imperial Rule. To create an independent state to oppose the European countries, a centralized administrative framework was formed. While handling Fuheishizoku-no-Hanran (rebellions of former samurai with gripes) and Jiyu Minken Undo (Movement for Liberty and People's Right), the Meiji Government began to realize the need for a parliamentary system. For the modernization of Japan, they understood that they needed to allow political involvement of the general public; so they began to search for a modern framework for the nation. As the model, they chose the constitutional monarchy of Europe.

To announce to the nation that the real ruler was not a shogun but an emperor, the Kyushu general office director of suppression circulated a document stating "We had so many different Shoguns but the Emperor is still there without his blood line cut". In Kyoto Prefecture, they also announced the imperial reign. The new government paid imperial visits quite often.

Under the Constitution of the Empire of Japan

The Constitution of the Empire of Japan is said to be written with reference to the constitutions of the Kingdom of Prussia and Belgium. Hirobumi ITO realized that, in Europe, there was a religion (Christianity) at the base of the unified nation supporting the political system including the parliamentary system, so he expected the Imperial Family to become the 'axis' (mental support) to replace religion.

The Status of the Emperor

In Article 1 of the Constitution of the Empire of Japan, it says, 'The Empire of Japan shall be reigned over and governed by a line of Emperors unbroken for ages eternal' and Article 4 says 'The Emperor is the head of the Empire, combining in Himself the rights of sovereignty, and the exercise of them, according to the provisions of the present Constitution'; in which, unlike the Constitution of Japan, clearly states the Emperor is the Genshu 'Head of the State'.

The Emperor's Authority

In the Constitution of the Empire of Japan, the amount of authority the Emperor had was stated as below:

The Emperor was the head of the Empire, combining in Himself the rights of sovereignty, and the exercise of them.

The Emperor has the supreme command of the Army and Navy.

The Emperor exercises the legislative power with the consent of the Imperial Diet.

The respective Ministers of State shall give their advice to the Emperor.

The Judicature shall be exercised by the Courts of Law according to law, in the name of the Emperor.

Constitutional Monarchy

With the establishment of the Constitution of the Empire of Japan, Japan was said to have become a constitutional monarchy. Even Hirobumi ITO, who drew up the Constitution of the Empire of Japan did not expect the Emperor to take the complete role of the monarch. Reading the contents literally gives the impression that the Emperor had great power; but even after the Meiji period, the Emperor rarely governed the affairs of state directly. For this point, some say that the Emperor was, in reality, in a similar position to the monarchs of current Japan and the United Kingdom with the base of 'reigns but doesn't govern'. Yet others say that it was not exactly the same because the Japanese Emperor used his clout at important political situations. For the Study of Constitution, there has been numerous discussions on the Emperor's legal position under the Constitution of the Empire of Japan.

Supreme Command

Considering the members of the House of Representatives would be mostly anti-government, they gave the Kizokuin (House of Peers) similar authority to the House of Representatives.

The people who actually administrated politics were not the Emperor but Genro (elder statesman) and ministers in the Cabinet (Han-dominated government). The executive power was to be on the Emperor with the support of the Minister of State. Under the Constitution of the Empire of Japan, the Cabinet ministers were stated to support the Emperor (the Prime Minister was the same level as the other ministers). However, it was ambiguous at the point of who has the right to make the final political decisions. Externally, it was stated that the Emperor was the leader of the Empire of Japan but that the actual policymaker was the Cabinet. The Cabinet was ruled not by the Constitution, but by the Naikaku-kansei (Organization of Cabinet Edict), in which the Prime Minister was stated as the shuhan (the head seat) of the other ministers but in an equal position.

This defect in structure became a target widely used by opposition parties and the military later on after the Showa period started.
Stretching interpretation of the constitution the military insisted that 'they do not have to follow the government policies because the Supreme Command lies on the Emperor' and the military gained power (Dual System of Power and the Problem of the infringement of Independence of the Supreme Command)
When the military was running away and ignoring the government using their position of being directly under the Emperor as a shield, the government had trouble regulating them. When the February 26th Incident occurred, because the Emperor Showa got enraged and insisted on going there himself to settle the situation, the rebels were subdued. When deciding whether to accept the Potsdam Declaration and surrender at the end of World War II, even the Prime Minister was not allowed to decide it by himself and so they had to ask the Emperor to make an 'Imperial decision'. However, the Emperor was aware of his position as constitutional monarch; therefore, he had not made political decisions apart from these two incidents although he was Kamigoichinin (person in paramount authority). A scholar of Political Science, Masao MARUYAMA called this type of governing structure without the main political constituent as 'Musekinin-no-taikei' (a system of irresponsibility).

Because the Tennosei from the Meiji period until the end of World War II was different from traditional Tennosei, it is also called Zettaishugiteki Tennosei (Absolutistic Emperor System) or Kindai Tennosei (Emperor System of Meiji) (Refer to the section of 'Emperor System and Fascism').

The Constitution of Japan

The General Headquarters of the Allied Powers thought the Tennosei would be useful for their occupation policy, they let the Tennosei survive in the Constitution of Japan with the Emperor as the titular head (Emperor system with the emperor as a symbol of the unity of the people). People accepted the Tennosei through events such as the Emperor Showa's visits to various places and Akihito's wedding ceremony and the Tennosei is receiving reasonable support. This Tennosei based on the people's support after World War II is called Taishu Tennosei (People's Emperor System).

The common theory of the constitution study group is that the current system under the Constitution of Japan is not considered as the constitutional monarchy and therefore the Emperor is not the head of state; but there are some theories that believe the Emperor is practically the head of state. However, other countries consider Japan as a constitutional monarchy with the Emperor as the head of state and the Japanese government are treating the Emperor more or less as the head of the country.

The official views of the Japanese government are as follows:

It is correct to call Japan a constitutional monarchy.

We think it is correct to call the Emperor, the head of the country.

Views before the war

The difference in the views toward Tennosei of the Meiji period and the post war period is pointed out that the 'post-war historians were all blaming the Tennosei for the failure of Japan but never praised it for the success of the country; to the contrary, intellectuals of the Meiji period thanked the Emperor for their success but never blamed him for the defects.'

Views of the Supporters of the Imperial Family

The realization of the world peace through Emperor's conquest of the world: by going through the final world war, all the people should believe in the Arahitogami (God who appeared in this world in human form) and the world should be unified by the spiritual power of Emperor.

The general officer of the Imperial Japanese Army, Kanji ISHIWARA said 'Where all the human beings believe in the Arahitogami, the civilization of the rule of Right shows its real value for the first time. The last war, the final match between the rule of right and the rule of might is in fact a match between people who believe in the Emperor and people who don't. So the war is to decide if the Emperor becomes the Emperor of the world or the Western President becomes the leader of the world. This is the biggest event of all time in our history.'
He also said 'According to our belief, the unifying human belief is only possible when all the people in the world realize the spiritual power of Japan's national identity. To put it briefly, the existence of the Emperor (Arahitogami) as the spiritual power for the unified world. To make people all over the world believe this, we have to behave well as people and as a nation; otherwise it will end as a dream.'

Views of the Anti-imperial Family

The views of the anti-imperial family virtually did not exist. First of all, Emperor was sovereign and a ruler before the World War II and during the World War II and no criticism was allowed (absolute monarchy). Refer to the section of 'Lese Majesty'.

Views of Tennosei after the War

After World War II, there came numerous criticisms of the Tennosei from the perspective of communism and modern political science (from people such as Masao MARUYAMA who was mentioned above). Between the 1950s and 1960s, there was a movement for the abolition of the Tennosei mainly from the communists. When the Emperor Showa passed away, there was a discussion whether the Tennosei should be continued or not on a TV program called "Asamade Nama TV" of TV Asahi Corporation. However, no media has been focused on this issue seriously since then.

The Japanese Communist Party amended their policy and although they do not accept any head of state or ruler, about the Tennosei, they decided to leave it to the people because the sovereignty rests with the people.

According to various opinion surveys, most people insist on the preservation of the current state of the Tennosei which has the Emperor as the symbol of the unity of the people and this is the system supported by Japanese nationals.

Views of the Supporters of the Imperial Family

The secret police to control public opinions are steel active and we will arrest the communists who advocate the anti-imperial family movement mercilessly; also we will keep the communists locked up; anyone who insists on the transformation of the current political system or abolition of the Tennosei are to be considered as communists and will be arrested under the Public Peace Preservation Act.' October 1945, the Minister of Home Affairs Iwao YAMAZAKI

Under the Tennosei, we should carry out a different type of democracy from those of other countries' (December 1945, Masahiro YASUOKA).

We expect everyone to take the Emperor as Arahitogami and remove any power that damages our imperial nation whether it is from the inside or outside; restore the Constitution of the Empire of Japan and rebuild the imperial army with nucleus weapons' (Dai Nipppon Junkokai [Great Japan Die-for-the-Emperor Group] established in 1961).

Find the main constituent of the Japanese race under the Tennosei' (Chian Kakuritsu Doshikai [Group of Comrades to Establish National Security] established in 1952).

The family tree of the Japanese Imperial Family extends straight back to a mythological age; think if, for example in Greece, the descendants of Agamemnon had been the Kings of Greece and in England the direct descendants of Alfred the Great had been the King of the country: for non-Japanese, it is an incredible reality' (Shoichi WATANABE, June 1990)

View of the Anti-Imperial Family

It is necessary in today's Japan to bring the status of the Emperor down to a normal human being' (Ango SAKAGUCHI, June 1946).

Tennosei started a war of aggression,' said Yuriko MIYAMOTO in February, 1949.

Aum Shinrikyo (a cult group) was planning to make Japan as Shambhala (establishing the state of Aum)

The state of Aum is governed by Shoko ASAHARA, who is the incarnation of Shiva and who embodies the sacred laws of the macrocosms and the state of Aum is the country of theocracy in which Asahara is a theocrat who assumes full power.'
With the establishment of the Aum state, the Imperial Family who have their base on Shinto are to be abolished and family names such as Katsuragi will be given to them to be Minsekijin (general public on a population register). Instead, Asahara and his family become the Imperial Family (He has already given the title of Prince to his eldest and second sons).'
Japan as a name of a country has close connection with the Emperor, so it is not suitable to represent the Aum state. Therefore, it would be preferable to call it as follows: Shinri-koku (Country of Truth), Aum-koku (Country of Aum), Shinsei-Aum-koku (Sacred Aum Country) or Taiyoseijyaku-koku (Serene country with the sun).'

Tennosei Absolutism

Tennosei absolutism is the word which defined the modern Tennosei in modern day Japan by Kozaha (a group of Marxians). It is also called 'Absolute Tennosei' (Absolute Emperor System).

It was the left-wing historians with the materialist concept who called the political system after the Meiji Restoration as "Absolute Tennosei" regarding it as absolute monarchism. This is a theory of socioeconomic history to say that the political system in Japan from the Meiji Restoration until World War II was to be absolutism and that the Meiji Restoration was not a bourgeois revolution but an unfinished reform.

On the other hand, in the 'liberalism view of history', interpretation of history is determined with the existence of 'similar' and 'parallel' phenomenon; therefore, it says that in the Edo period when the Bakufu (shogunate) who had the diplomatic rights and the trading rights, it was thought to have already been under a system of absolutism.

There are several viewpoints when comparing the Tennosei to Enlightened despotism or comparing the Meiji Restoration to bourgeois revolutions.

[Original Japanese]