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6 Things You Might Not Know About Emperor Akihito and Japan’s Monarchy

April 30, 2019 in History

By Sarah Pruitt

1. Japan is the oldest continuous monarchy in the world.

Though it’s a liberal democracy, Japan is also the oldest continuous monarchy in the world. According to widely accepted (though somewhat legendary) genealogy, Akihito’s family has ruled for some 2,700 years. Though we know little of the first 25 emperors—starting in 600 B.C. with Emperor Jimmu, said to be descended from the sun goddess Amaterasu—there is solid evidence of an unbroken hereditary line stretching from 500 A.D. to today.

2. Akihito is the first Japanese monarch in 200 years to step down.

It didn’t use to be such a big deal for the emperor to abdicate the throne; more than half of Japan’s monarchs throughout history have done so. The last one was Emperor Kokaku, who stepped down in 1817. Japan’s emperor was long known as tenno, or “heavenly sovereign,” with a divine right to rule. But with the rise of the cult of emperor worship in the 19th century—fully encouraged by Japan’s political leaders—the emperor effectively became a demigod, and stepping down became an unthinkable step.

As part of Japan’s surrender in World War II, Hirohito actually had to publicly renounce “the false conception that the emperor is divine.” Though Japan’s 1947 constitution effectively reduced the emperor to a figurehead, the office still has considerable power as a “symbol of the state and the unity of the people.”

3. Akihito broke with tradition when he married, becoming the first Japanese monarch to marry a commoner. His son Naruhito did the same.

Until the 20th century, emperors usually had a chief wife and several concubines (all from noble families). Akihito was the first emperor to have permission to marry a commoner, and he did so, falling in love with Michiko Shoda (now Empress Nagako) after meeting her on a tennis court. They married in 1959, and went on to have three children. Akihito’s elder son, Crown Prince Naruhito, who became emperor in April 2019, also married a commoner, the former diplomat Masako Owada.

4. Women could once inherit the imperial throne.

Though historically, women could ascend to the Japanese throne and rule in their own right—eight of Japan’s rulers have been women—Japan’s Imperial Household Law now mandates that only male heirs can inherit the throne. Though there had been talk of changing the law to include female members of the royal family in the imperial succession, any plans to do so were dropped …read more


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