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The Imperial Palace

The Emperor of Japan is the world's only reigning emperor.

At first glance, this usage seems odd in three respects. First, and most obviously, Japan does not have an empire. Indeed, for most its history, the boundaries of Japan have not extended beyond the home islands: Kyushu, Honshu, Hokkaido and Okinawa.

Japan did acquire an empire, beginning with the annexation of the Ryu Kyu Islands in 1875 and culminating in conquest of Southeast Asia in 1940-1942. At the end of World War II, however, Japan lost its colonies.

Second, while Japan has an "emperor" it is not formally an "empire." Between 1889 and 1946, the long form of the country's name was the "Empire of Japan." During the American occupation, the Diet (parliament) voted to drop the long form.

The country is simply Japan (Nihon or Nippon) the land of the rising sun.

Third, the word "emperor" is not an accurate description of the historical and constitutional role of the Japanese monarch. Unlike the Chinese and Mongol emperors, the Russian tsars, and the Byzantine emperors, the Japanese emperors have rarely exercised political power or commanded armies in the field.

Instead, they have mainly performed sacerdotal functions and served as the source of legitimacy for the country's real rulers. As the direct descendant of the sun goddess, Amaterasu Omikani, and thus a manifestation of divinity on earth (kami), the emperor functioned as the chief priest of the indigenous religion, Shinto.

After the introduction of Buddhism to Japan and the "merger" of Buddhist and Shintô practice in the eighth century A.D., the emperor continued to function as a shaman king.

In the seventh century, political power passed to Fujiwara, on the four aristocratic families in the capital city Kyoto (794-1185). Later political power passed from the ancient court aristocracy (kuge) to the emerging military aristocracy (daimyo) in the countryside.

A succession of warrior dynasties -the Taira, the Minamoto, the Ashikaga, and finally the Tokugawa actually governed the country almost continually from 1185 to 1867.The heads of these families held the title of Shogun ("great barbarian subduing generalissimo").

Even after the abolition of the Tokugawa shogunate and so-called restoration of imperial rule in 1867, the Japanese emperor had little independent authority.

The 1889 Meiji Constitution vested nominally vested supreme executive, legislative,and military command authority in the throne.In reality, the emperor presided over a complex web of state institutions-the cabinet, the Privy Council,the army and navy general staffs,and the Imperial Household Ministry-and extra-constitutional bodies-the genro(the council of elder statesmen)-with little ability to either make policy or veto policies undertaken in his name.

A succession of warrior dynasties -the Taira, the Minamoto, the Ashikaga, and finally the Tokugawa actually governed the country almost continually from 1185 to 1867.The heads of these families held the title of Shogun ("great barbarian subduing generalissimo").

The present Japanese Constitution(in effect from May 17,1947)defines the emperor as "the symbol of the State and the unity of the people,deriving his position from the will of the people in who resides sovereign power."The Japanese word for their hereditary monarch is Tenno´ (literally "heavenly sovereign"). The word, borrowed from Chinese, dates from the seventh century A.D.

The other common term is Tenshi. Both words are gender neutral.

Japan has had six female monarchs,the last of whom,Go-Sakuramachi,reigned from 1763 to 1771.

The term Mikado(honorable gate or the Sublime Porte),popularized in the west by the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta of that name,is archaic. Other titles for the emperor are Dairi(Court),Gosho (Palace);Heika(Steps to the Throne); Aramikami(Incarnate Divinity);and Akitsukame(Manifest Destiny).

The use of the terms "emperor," "imperial"and "imperial family" in reference to the Japanese monarch and his family are artifacts of the general title inflation of the mid-to-late nineteenth century.Until the early nineteenth century,most Westerners were largely unaware that Tokugawa Japan was a diarchy.

The Shoun exercised de-facto control over the country from his capital at Edo (present day Tokyo),while the Tenno performed sacerdotal functions in Kyoto. Indeed,in 1853 Commodore Matthew Perry presented the bakufu officials with a letter from the president of the United States to the king of Japan.

When the true state of affairs became more widely known,Westerners began to refer to the shogun as the "tycoon"-a corruption of the Japanese word taikun(great lord).After the Meiji Restoration(1868),the Satsuma-Choshu oligarchs adopted the English word "emperor"(Kaiser in German and l'Empereur in French) as the official translation for Tenno.They did so largely to put the "restored" Japanese monarch on an equally footing with sovereigns of the great powers-the Tsar of Russia, the Emperor of the French(1857-1871),the Emperor of Austria,the German Emperor (from 1871),and the Queen-Empress of India(from 1877)-and the emperors of China, Mexico and Brazil. Moreover,the Satsuma-Chosou oligarchs sought to use "restored" emperor to both unify the country and bolster Japan's standing relative to the Western powers.
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1-13-10, Sanshin Building 2A, Hatchobori, Chuo-ku, Tokyo, Japan