Japan has the longest continuously reigning monarchy in the world, the same family having occupied the imperial throne definitely since the 5th Century and possibly since 660 BC according to legend. But what power does the Imperial Family currently have?
Japan has a constitutional monarchy modeled after Western liberal democracies. This involves a complex, multi-branch structure that includes the Emperor of Japan as the head of state. This balanced integration of tradition and modernity is very typical of Japanese culture and can be seen in many facets of its government.
For a full understanding of Japan’s government, we must first discuss its historical precedents. Then, we can take a look at all the branches of government and their relationship with the symbolic emperor.
Japan’s Government Throughout History
Japan’s government has been feudal throughout most of its history. Although the imperial family came to power in 660 BC through the legendary first Emperor Jimmu, its influence was limited by political fragmentation. From 1199, feudal shoguns controlled large areas of land and their loyal military leaders were the samurai who fought to protect the lands and keep order.
Still, the emperor held a very respected position and engaged in diplomacy with foreign powers like China. This is because, according to legend, the Emperor was descended from the sun goddess Amaterasu in a direct, unbroken line from Emperor Jimmu himself. Loyalty to the emperor was important to legitimize the shogun’s power, and they often evoked the name of the emperor when attacking their enemies.
The Edo period began at the beginning of the 17th Century. By this time, the Tokugawa shogunate had achieved dominance over the entire area of Japan. Since Japan was essentially unified, the Emperor served little purpose after that. The Tokugawa shogunate moved the seat of government from Kyoto to Tokyo, though they kept the imperial family in place symbolically.
The Tokugawa shogunate also implemented a policy of sakoku that essentially closed Japan off to the outside world. Trade was extremely limited and only through intermediary ports controlled by the shogunate. This prevented Western influence and helped the Tokunaga shogunate maintain power.
This period of isolation lasted until 1853, when a fleet of American ships commanded by Admiral Matthew Perry entered Tokyo Bay and forced Japan to open to foreign trade. Japan quickly realized that it had fallen behind technology while it was closed off, and this caused a lot of social conflict. This led to the Meiji Restoration, in which the Tokunaga shogunate was removed from power and the Emperor returned to his former role.
Japan’s Government in World War II
Once the Emperor was returned to power in the Meiji Restoration, Japan rapidly began to industrialize and expand its influence. It started colonizing nearby territories like Korea, the Philippines and Manchuria leading up to World War II. Like many countries at the time, the Emperor became more than a leader but a symbol for national pride. Soldiers, for example, fought and died in the name of their Emperor.
By World War II, Japan had developed a semi-constitutional monarchy that had a parliament called the Imperial Diet and an independent judiciary. Still, the Emperor was the ultimate seat of power. The Emperor at the time was Hirohito who, along with his advisors, was responsible for most of Japan’s imperial expansion and military activity during the war.
The Current Constitutional Monarchy
Currently, Japan is a constitutional monarchy similar to countries like the UK and Spain. Under this system, a constitution dictates how the government is set up and which roles exercise which powers. This includes giving a certain amount of power to a monarch, the Emperor in the case of Japan. However, this power is very limited, and the Emperor mostly just has ceremonial duties and serves as a symbol of national unity.
The constitution of Japan was written with input from the occupying American forces after World War II and was enacted in 1947. As a result, it was modeled after the principles of Western liberal democracy. This means free elections, private property, protected civil liberties, and a separation of powers that includes legislative, executive, and judicial branches.
The Legislative Branch
The legislature of Japan is called the National Diet, or Kokkai (国会). It’s divided into two houses: a lower house, Shūgiin (衆議院), has 465 members elected to a four-year term, and a higher house, Sangiin (参議院), has 245 members elected to six-year terms.
The National Diet writes the laws as well as sets the budgets and approves treaties. Additionally, they have the power to impeach other officials. Since Japan operates on a parliamentary system, the National Diet also chooses the Prime Minister.
Bills must pass both houses of the National Diet to become law. They are then sent to the executive branch for signing. Once signed, the Emperor makes it official. This is really only ceremonial, though, and the Emperor does not have the authority to reject a law.
The National Diet has the power to change the constitution through amendments. These are submitted to the population for a referendum. If the people vote for the amendment, it’s sent to the Emperor who then makes it official just as he would a law.
The Executive Branch
The executive branch consists of the Prime Minister, his cabinet, and the various ministries and departments that enforce laws and regulations. The current Prime Minister is Shinzo Abe of the Liberal Democratic Party. He’s been in office since 2012.
The Prime Minister is chosen by the National Diet and formally appointed by the Emperor. They then serve a term that lasts up to four years, though there is no limit to the number of terms one can serve. The Prime Minister is the head of government, so they lead the executive branch, the cabinet, and ministers. They are also the commander-in-chief of the Japanese Defense Forces.
The cabinet, or Naikaku (内閣), consists of ministers that advise the Prime Minister and assist in the actions that enforce Japan’s laws. For example, there is a Minister of Finance, a Minister of Agriculture, a Minister of Justice, etc. They’re especially involved in foreign affairs and treaties as well as appointing judges and their vice-ministers. The Prime Minister selects his cabinet, but most of them must be members of the National Diet. Normally, he can only choose up to 14 members.
The executive branch also includes the various ministries of Japan that carry out the day-to-day governing of the country. These include regulatory commissions, national bureaucracies, and law enforcement.
The Judicial Branch
The judicial branch is made up of all of Japan’s various courts. The highest is the Supreme Court, which has the ultimate say in questions of the constitution or national law. Supreme Court judges are appointed by the executive cabinet, except for the Supreme Court Chief Justice, who is appointed by the Emperor after being nominated by the cabinet.
To maintain its integrity, the judicial branch is independent of the other branches per the constitution. The other branches cannot set up other courts or tribunals to rule on laws, and they have no power to remove judges from office. Only the general population may impeach judges through a referendum.
While the Supreme Court handles ultimate questions of law, most cases are handled by lower courts. The penal system is operated by the Ministry of Justice, and judges rule on criminal and civil cases. Decisions can then be appealed to higher courts.
The Role of the Emperor
The Japanese Emperor holds mostly a ceremonial and symbolic position and manifests little real power. Still, he is the leader of the Imperial Family, which has considerable financial assets throughout the country, and he is the nominal head of state.
According to the Constitution of Japan, the Emperor has two main ceremonial duties. First, he must appoint the Prime Minister as selected by the National Diet. Second, he must appoint the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court as selected by the cabinet.
While most executive power rests with the Prime Minister, the Emperor does have a few things he’s in charge of. Most of these are ceremonial tasks like receiving foreign ambassadors and awarding honors. He can also grant amnesty and commute punishments, similar to pardons.
Although the few powers held by the Emperor are mostly considered ceremonial, they do occasionally make a procedural difference. For example, in 2009 the Prime Minister decided to dissolve the lower house of the legislature but was unable to do so before the next general election because the Emperor was visiting Canada.
Interestingly, the current role of the Emperor is very similar to what it was throughout most of Japan’s history. He was previously mostly a ceremonial leader granting legitimacy to a shogun who had the real power. Now it’s the same except with a Prime Minister instead of a shogun.
The Emperor Today
The current Emperor of Japan is Naruhito. He came to the throne on May 1, 2019, when his father, Akihito, abdicated due to declining health. Naruhito is the 126th Emperor of Japan and grandson of Emperor Hirohito who ruled Japan through World War II and then continued as the first Emperor under the new 1947 constitution until his death on January 7, 1989.
Like many symbolic monarchs around the world, Naruhito tries to use his influence and station for causes he feels passionately about. He is especially interested in water conservation and leads global forums on the topic. He also enjoys hiking and mountaineering as is well known for his love of Mt. Fuji. His wife is Masako Owada, whom he met in Spain in 1986 and married in 1993. Together they have one daughter, Aiko, Princess Toshi, who was born in 2001.