The Chrysanthemum Throne: A Two and a Half Millennia History of Divine Imperial Rule in Japan
The Chrysanthemum Throne is the throne of the Emperor of Japan and a metonym referring to the Japanese monarchy itself. The Japanese imperial family has recently been in the news, due to the ascension of Emperor Naruhito on the 1st of May 2019, following the abdication of his father, Emperor Akihito the day before. According to the traditional order of succession, Naruhito is the 126th Emperor of Japan.
The first emperor to have occupied the Chrysanthemum Throne was Emperor Jimmu , a legendary figure believed to have lived between the 7th and 6th centuries BC. All subsequent Japanese emperors claim descent from him, making the Yamato Dynasty (the Imperial House of Japan) the oldest continuous hereditary monarchy in the world today.
The Origin of the Chrysanthemum Throne
The Imperial Seal of Japan (known also as the Chrysanthemum Seal) features a stylized chrysanthemum flower and is one of the national symbols of Japan. This symbol is yellow in color and consists of a central disc with two sets of 16 petals. The front set of petals is fully visible, while the rear set is partly covered by the front petals, and therefore is visible only on the edges of the flower.
The association between the Japanese monarchy and the chrysanthemum flower was made in the 8th century AD, during the Nara period. The chrysanthemum is native to East Asia and was first cultivated in China during the 15th century BC. This flower arrived in Japan during the Nara period, when the upper class of Japanese society actively sought to emulate their Chinese neighbors, whose culture was regarded to be more sophisticated and refined.
Among other things, the Japanese elites of the time adopted the Chinese system of writing, their clothing, and Buddhism. When the chrysanthemum was introduced into the country, the imperial family was so fascinated by this flower that they decided to use it as their official emblem.
The Coat of Arms of the Chrysanthemum Throne. (Heralder / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
The Japanese monarchy, however, predates the arrival of the chrysanthemum in Japan. According to tradition, the first ruler of Japan was Emperor Jimmu, who lived from 660 to 585 BC. The given name of the legendary first emperor of Japan was Kamu-yamato Iware-biko no Mikoto, and Jimmu (meaning ‘divine might’) was his posthumous reign name. According to Japanese mythology,
Emperor Jimmu was a descendant of the sun goddess Amaterasu , through her grandson Ninigi no Mikoto. Incidentally, the emperor is called Tenno, which literally translates to mean ‘heavenly sovereign’ a reflection of his divine status. In any case, Ninigi was sent down to earth by his grandmother and landed in Japan.
At that time, the province of Izumo was ruled by another god, Okuninushi no Mikoto, the son-in-law of the storm god Susanoo. As one might expect, Okuninushi was reluctant to give up his rule and only did so after he was allowed to retain control over religious affairs.
Ninigi married Princess Konohanasakuya, a descendant of Susanoo, and the couple had three sons. One of Ninigi’s sons was Hikohohodemi no Mikoto (known also as Hoori), who married Princess Toyotama, the daughter of the sea god Owatatsumi. Their son, Ugayafukiaezu no Mikoto, was abandoned by his mother, as Hikohohodemi broke a promise he made to his wife.
Although the god promised not to watch his wife while she gave birth, curiosity got the better of him and he spied on her. Disappointed by her husband’s action, Toyotama returned to the sea, after which she sent her younger sister, Princess Tamayori, to help raise the child. After Ugayafukiaezu reached adulthood, he married Tamayori and had four sons with her. The youngest of these was Emperor Jimmu.
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Princess Toyotama, the daughter of the Dragon King of the sea, gave birth to Ugayafuki Aezu by turning herself into a dragon. (Horst Gräbner / Public Domain )
According to Japanese mythology, Jimmu and his brothers were originally from Takachiho, on the island of Kyushu. The brothers realized that their location was not central enough to rule the entire country and therefore decided to migrate eastwards. The first attempted migration was led by Jimmu’s older brother, Itsuse no Mikoto, and traversed the Seto Inland Sea.
At Naniwa (present day Osaka), the migrants encountered a local chieftain by the name of Nagasunehiko (literally meaning ‘long-legged man’) and a battle ensued, during which Itsuse was killed. Jimmu reasoned that they were defeated because they had fought eastwards against the sun. Therefore, for their second attempted migration, Jimmu decided to land on the east side of the Kii Peninsula and to move westwards. With the guidance of a three-legged crow named Yatagarasu (meaning eight-span crow), Jimmu and his followers arrived at Yamato, where they met Nagasunehiko in battle once more.
This time, however, the migrants were victorious. The ruler of Yamato was Nigihayahi no Mikoto, who also claimed descent from the gods. When he met Jimmu, however, Nigihayahi recognized his legitimacy and relinquished his power. Thus, Yamato became the seat of Jimmu’s power and the royal house he established became known as the Yamato Dynasty.
The Divine Status of the Chrysanthemum Throne
While Japanese tradition holds that Emperor Jimmu was of divine descent, some scholars (predominantly Chinese ones) have sought to relate him to Xu Fu, a court official of the Qin Dynasty who lived between the 3rd and 2nd centuries BC. According to the historical records, Xu Fu was the court magician of Qin Shi Huang, the notorious first emperor of China, and was given the task of seeking the elixir of immortality for his master.
He was to sail eastwards to the legendary Mount Penglai, which was home to Anqi Sheng, an immortal believed to be over 1000 years old during in Shi Huang’s time. In 219 BC, Xu Fu embarked on his quest, only to return the emperor empty-handed several years later. Xu Fu reported that he could not reach Mount Penglai as his path was blocked by a giant fish. Therefore, he requested a detachment of archers so as to kill the monster.
Qin Shi Huang granted Xu Fu’s request and the magician travelled eastwards once more in 210 BC. In addition to archers, Xu Fu was given 60 barques, which was filled with 3000 men and 2000 women.
The expedition in search of the medicine for immortality. (Alonso de Mendoza / Public Domain )
Xu Fu was aware of the consequences of returning to Qin Shi Huang empty-handed a second time and therefore feared for his life. It is little wonder; therefore, Xu Fu disappeared from the pages of history after setting out on his second expedition. Legends arose in an attempt to fill the gap left by history regarding Xu Fu’s fate.
Even during ancient Chinese times, it was already speculated that after sailing eastwards, Xu Fu landed on a foreign island, conquered it, and declared himself king. Xu Fu is referred to as Jofuku by the Japanese and legend has it that he landed on the island after seeing Mount Fuji, which he thought was the legendary Mount Penglai and that he had landed on that island.
Xu Fu is credited with the introduction of agriculture and medicinal plants to the Japanese and therefore is worshipped as the god of farming and agriculture. One theory takes the myth further, proposing that Xu Fu and Emperor Jimmu were the same person, which is a controversial claim, as it would imply that the Japanese are the descendants of Chinese migrants / refugees.
As opposed to tradition, historians generally regard Emperor Jimmu as a mythological figure. As a matter of fact, the first nine Japanese emperors are thought to exist only in the realm of mythology, and that the first emperor of plausible historicity is Emperor Sujin, the 10th emperor. Furthermore, it was only from the 29th emperor, Emperor Kinmei onwards that the historicity of the Japan’s rulers is verifiable.
Emperor Sujin is said to have live during the 1st century BC, whereas Emperor Kinmei during the 6th century AD. Even if one were to consider all the emperors prior to Kinmei as legendary, it does not change Japan’s claim to having the oldest continuous hereditary monarchy in the world, since the Chrysanthemum Throne has been occupied by the same dynasty for about 1500 years.
Emperor Sujin, the 10th emperor of the Chrysanthemum Throne. ( 可怜~commonswiki / Public Domain )
The divine status of the Japanese emperors accorded them much respect and reverence. Nevertheless, they were not always able to exercise absolute power and at times were merely figureheads. This is perhaps most famously seen during the Tokugawa period (known also as the Edo period ), which lasted from 1603 to 1867/8. During this time, Japan was ruled by the Tokugawa shoguns from Edo (modern day Tokyo), while the emperor and the imperial family stayed in Kyoto, away from the administration and politics of the country.
Incidentally, the title ‘shogun’ may be translated roughly to mean ‘barbarian-quelling generalissimo’ and was first used during the Heian period (794-1185 AD). During this period, ‘ shogun’ was merely a title occasionally granted to generals who had conducted successful military campaigns and had no political power attached to it whatsoever. The Tokugawa period, however, was not the first time Japan was ruled by shoguns.
During the Kamakura and Ashikaga (known also as Muromachi) periods, which lasted from 1192-1333 AD and 1338-1573 AD respectively. Political power in Japan was concentrated in the hands of the shoguns rather than the emperors. The power the shoguns wielded, however, varied. For instance, the shoguns of the Kamakura Shogunate ruled Japan directly initially but later lost real power to the Hojo clan and were reduced to being nominal rulers.
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Muromachi period of the Chrysanthemum Throne. ( Ismoon / Public Domain )
The last decades of the Tokugawa Shogunate were fraught with problems. In addition to financial instability, peasant uprisings, and samurai unrests, the shogunate had to deal also with the threat of encroachment by Western powers. This led to a growing demand for the abolishment of the shogunate and for the country to be placed under direct imperial rule once more.
By the 1860s, loyalists to the emperor prevailed and overthrew the Tokugawa Shogunate. The last Tokugawa shogun, Tokugawa Yoshinobu, stepped down in 1867. In the following year, Mutsuhito (more commonly known by his posthumous name, Meiji), the 122 nd Emperor of Japan, was restored as an absolute monarch.
The Chrysanthemum Throne Evolves
During the reign of Emperor Meiji, which lasted from 1868 to 1912, Japan was transformed from a feudal state into a modern, industrialized nation. It was also during this time that Japan began to entertain imperialistic ideas and to expand beyond its borders, thus turning it into an actual empire.
The First Sino-Japanese War broke out in 1894 and ended in the following year when the Chinese sued for peace. Apart from transferring the Korean Peninsula from the Chinese to the Japanese sphere of influence, the Chinese were also forced to hand over some of their territories, including Taiwan and the Liaodong Peninsula to the Japanese.
Korea itself would later be annexed by the Japanese Empire in 1910. Japan also fought a war with Russia, the Sino-Japanese War, between 1904 and 1905, and emerged victorious. This shocked the world, as it was the first time in modern history that a European power was defeated by an Asian one.
Emperor Meiji transformed the Chrysanthemum Throne into a modern empire. (Adece033090 / Public Domain )
Japanese imperial expansionism reached its height during the reign of Emperor Hirohito (whose posthumous name is Emperor Showa), Meiji’s grandson. Hirohito ruled Japan from 1926 to 1989, a total of 62 years, making him the longest-reigning monarch in Japanese history. During the early part of Hirohito’s reign, Japan was becoming increasingly militaristic, which culminated in its participation as a major combatant during World War II.
Historians have been debating about the role played by the emperor during this period, with some arguing that Hirohito was actively involved in Japan’s expansionist policies while others taking the opposite view that the policies were dictated by the militarists who dominated the government and the armed forces, and that the emperor was forced to accept them.
In any case, Hirohito played a crucial role in Japan’s surrender to the Allied forces as the country was threatened with invasion towards the end of the war. While some Japanese leaders were prepared to fight till the bitter end, others advocated surrender.
The emperor sided with the latter group, and on the 15th of August 1945, made a national radio broadcast to announce Japan’s acceptance of the Allies’ terms of surrender. The emperor made a second historical broadcast on the 1st of January 1946, repudiating the quasi-divine status of the Japanese emperors that has been held traditionally.
Since 1947, Japan has been a constitutional monarchy. Although the emperor has little political power, he remains relevant to Japanese society as a “symbol of the state and of the unity of the people.” Hirohito was succeeded by his son, Akihito, following his death in 1989.
Akihito broke a long-standing tradition in 1959, when, as Crown Prince, he married Shoda Michiko, a commoner. In 2016, Akihito announced his intention to abdicate, as he was concerned that he would not be able to fulfil his duties as emperor due to his age. Akihito abdicated on the 30 th of April 2019, after occupying the Chrysanthemum Throne for 30 years.
His son, Naruhito, became the new emperor on the 1 st of May 2019. During the ascension ceremony, Naruhito was presented with two of Japan’s imperial regalia – the Kusanagi sword and the Yasakani no Magatama jewel, which represent valor and benevolence. The third object, the Yata no Kagami mirror, represents wisdom and is housed in the most important Shinto shrine, the Ise Grand Shrine in Mie Prefecture. Naruhito’s enthronement ceremony is scheduled to take place on the 22 nd of October 2019.
The Chrysanthemum Throne at the Kyoto Imperial Palace is used for accession ceremonies. It was last used during the enthronement of Naruhito in May 2019 the final ceremony will occur 22 October 2019 marking the end of the transition period. (Mallowtek / Public Domain )
Top image: Emperor Jimmu – the first ruler of the Chrysanthemum Throne, saw a sacred bird flying away while he was in the expedition of the eastern section of Japan. Source: Evening.star / Public Domain .
By Wu Mingren
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