The Japanese monarchy is one of the oldest monarchies in the world, and as of today it is a constitutional monarchy. In modern-day Japan, the monarchy is, according to the constitution of Japan, ‘a symbol of the state and unity of the people’. Unlike China, Japan, at least officially, has had only one dynasty since the beginning of time (Beasley, 1999).
There is a pattern followed in China’s where each dynasty has a stage of empire building, a stage of power or glory, and finally, a stage of decline. This pattern, however, is not apparent in Japan. The monarchy of Japan essentially consists of one dynasty going through a single cycle, which is by definition incomplete. The first two stages of the cycle have been comparable to that of China, but the third, that of decline, has been a long, drawn out and different in character.
The Emperors of Japan began their kingship on the basis of political economy and agrarian, cosmology of wet-rice agriculture (Emiko-Ohnuki-Tierney, 2003). The Ojin Emperor established his Yamato state near present day Osaka and through time, the ‘ancient kingdom’ as it was called went through significant developments until its political, economic and symbolic bases became firmly established.
The Japanese ‘ancient kingship’ reached its zenith during the eighth century, and after that lost its power, never to regain it for a very long time. The rise of the warrior clans meant political and military power was transferred to the Shoguns and their courts, especially during the Tokugawa Era, and the emperors were soon relegated to no more than the symbolic power of officiating at rice harvest rituals.
From about the tenth century onwards, Japanese emperors lost much of their power but retained their throne as well as a measure of influence, by virtue of a quasi-religious function rooted in the distant past The overthrow of the last shogun from the Tokugawa family in 1868, paved the way for the Meiji Restoration and opened a new chapter in the history of Japan, and subsequently, in the role of Emperors. The last Emperor before the start of the Meiji Era, Emperor Komei, was angry throughout much of his life.
His surviving letters and documents showed an Emperor who was not merely angry but frustrated over his inability to prevent the impending changes in the government and society (Keene, 2002). However, with the arrival of the Meiji Era, and the promulgation of the Constitution of Imperial Japan on 11 February 1889, the Emperors were theoretically returned to power, after decades of existing in obscurity.
They were ascribed vastly different powers and roles from their predecessors in the Tokugawa Era, having divine status, as well as command of the Army and the Navy, never before seen in the times of the shogunate. This is significant as even the European monarchs, were never described as divine themselves, ruling instead with ‘the grace and will of God’ (Emiko-Ohnuki-Tierney, 2003). The Emperors retained such power until the end of World War II, where under the occupation of the Allied Powers, they had to renounce their divine status.
The roles of the Emperor and the monarchy itself were very much reduced after 1946, and currently, the Japanese monarchy plays a largely ceremonial role in Japan, retaining no military or political power, becoming instead a symbol of unity for the people. More emphasis should be placed in studies, however, of how the modern day monarchy fits into the social fabric of Japan as well as how it, directly or indirectly, influences the life of everyday Japanese This would help to provide an insight into the roles the monarchy play in Japan, as well as by extension, the roles constitutional monarchies in other countries around the world.
More studies in this area would also help to show the relevance of monarchies and how it would measure up against other forms of government in the world, such as the republic system. With this, the people will be able to better appreciate the contributions of the monarchy system to modern-day government, and finally, decide for themselves if the system should be maintained in this modern age.