Japan is arguably the only country that can currently call itself an empire. That’s because they’re the only country to call their head of state “emperor,” something they’ve done for millennia.
Nominally, Japan has been an empire for most of its history. However, historians usually consider its imperial era to be its time of colonial expansion in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. Yet this time period is a product of Japan’s historical circumstances and ambitions. Discover how Japan’s self-image as an empire and the role of its emperor have changed dramatically throughout history.
From the legendary Emperor Jimmu to the currently living Naruhito, follow Japan’s imperial evolution through the ages. What do you think the future holds in store for the emperor and his empire?
The First Emperor
In many ways, Japan is an empire simply because it’s ruled by an emperor. In Japanese, the country’s ruler is referred to as tennō, which can be literally translated to “Emperor of God.” Currently, Japan is the only country with a head of state referred to as “emperor” in English.
Despite the name and extreme veneration that Japanese emperors have enjoyed, their actual power has varied greatly throughout the historical eras. Although they had a considerable amount of military and administrative power at first, their role became mostly symbolic in the face of dominant shogunate dynasties.
The actual title of tennō was not used for Japanese rulers until the 7th Century when it was borrowed from Chinese. The title was then retroactively applied to rulers before that time by historians, but little is actually known about them. If there is any archaeological information, it’s most likely buried in the ancient kofun tombs. The sites are sacred, though, and the imperial family does not allow archaeologists or the public to enter.
The Legend of Jimmu
According to legend, the first “Emperor” of Japan was Emperor Jimmu in 660 BC. He was a direct descendent of the sun goddess Amaterasu and therefore divine. The legend states that he was born in the south of Kyushu, which is now in the Miyazaki Prefecture. He believed ruling the area of Japan would be easier from a more centralized location in the east, so he began moving in that direction, fighting with various tribal leaders along the way.
During these battles, Jimmu learned an important lesson. Fighting while facing the rising sun in the east was a major disadvantage. He quickly realized it would be better to land and attack from the east to have the sun behind him. Thus the sun became an important symbol associated with the Japanese, something that continues to this day.
Eventually, Jimmu reached Yamato, the area we now know as Nara. There he ascended to the throne as Emperor and began to administer the empire. All subsequent Emperors were his descendants in a line that remains unbroken to the current Emperor.
Jimmu’s Legendary Descendants
The first 10 emperors of Japan are mostly considered legendary, as there aren’t any primary sources to corroborate their existence. Emperor Keiko, the 11th, is the first emperor that historians consider as possibly real.
Most of his existence is still shrouded in legend. For example, he’s said to have lived to be 143 years old. Official dates and names of emperors were not recorded until the 7th Century in the Kojiki, so it’s believed that the historians of that era exaggerated the lifespans of past emperors to fill in gaps.
Still, there is some evidence a figure like Keiko may have existed, though it may have even been a completely different century than the legend holds. This evidence involves Japanese diplomatic missions to China, specifically the Tang dynasty. Keiko’s real grave is unknown, but he’s venerated in a Shinto shrine at Nara.
Emperor Anko was the 20th Emperor of Japan and the first emperor that historians agree was a historical ruler of Japan. Still, dates are not known for certain, but he’s said to have ruled from 453-456 AD.
Emperor Kinmei was the 29th Emperor of Japan and the first emperor that historians can assign definitive dates to. He was born in 509 AD and ruled Japan from 539-571 AD. Still, he was most likely not referred to as tennō during his rule but rather a term closer to “king.”
Emperor Tenmu was the first true “emperor” since he had the title tennō. He was born in 631 AD and ruled from 673-686 AD. Tenmu’s rule is associated with the spread of Buddhism throughout Japan, and he banned the consumption of meat from domesticated animals.
The Ever Changing Role of the Emperor
Japan’s unification into a single country happened gradually during the Kofun Period which lasted from 250-538 AD. It is so named for the large burial mounds made for the powerful rulers of the time. The center of power was Yamato, which is now known as Nara. These rulers increased their influence partly through conquest, but they mostly convinced nearby tribal leaders to accept their rule in exchange for positions of authority.
The Asuka Period followed the Kufin Period and was marked by the spread of foreign influence in Japan. Japan traded extensively with China and Korea, and Buddhism came with it. Even distant states like the Persian Empire reached Japan via the Silk Road.
Japan remained a united country, but the imperial family lost a considerable amount of power. The Soga Clan was the first group to control the government from behind the scenes, and they dominated the emperor through the 7th Century.
The Nara and Heian Periods
From about 710-1185 AD, the state of the empire remained relatively stable. Japanese culture expanded considerably, and the emperor enjoyed the luxuries and responsibilities of monarchs around the globe. For example, the extensive capital at Heijo-kyo, now Nara, was a grandiose complex for government administration as well as the celebration of culture.
Though the emperor certainly had power during this time, there were always hidden puppet masters. With increased prosperity and economic efficiency, a wealthy aristocratic class evolved that spent most of their time playing politics and trying to gain influence.
By 1185 AD, Japan had developed into a feudal society. While the emperor still held nominal and mostly symbolic power, all actual authority rested with military leaders. The samurai warrior class was fully developed, and these fighting professionals maintained their positions by granting fiefdoms in return for loyalty.
The result was that the shogun came to be the main central leader, not the emperor. Originally the shogun was the commander-in-chief of the military, and throughout Japanese history, he would always remain “appointed” by the emperor. However, by this time it was merely a formality. The shogun was for all intents and purposes a military dictator.
The Emperor and the Shogun
In 1603, the Tokugawa shogunate came to power, the first shogun of the dynasty being Tokugawa Ieyasu. Though Ieyasu was technically appointed by Emperor Go-Yozei, the Tokugawa shogunate exercised near-absolute control over Japan. They even moved the capital from Kyoto to their home region of Edo, now Tokyo.
During this time, the emperor was just a symbol and no say in government. Instead, the shogunate took drastic measures to solidify their power. This included closing the country off in a policy of sakoku that forbade foreign trade and any immigration whether into or out of Japan. This prevented foreign influence, especially from the European powers, and helped the Tokugawa shogunate maintain control. Ultimately this would set the stage for Japanese imperialism in the 19th and 20th Centuries.
The Meiji Restoration
In 1853, an American fleet under command of Commodore Matthew Perry entered Tokyo Bay and forced the Tokugawa shogunate to open the country. After centuries of isolation, Japan was technologically and militarily behind the rest of the world, and the shogunate had no way to defend itself against American warships. They had to agree to let American traders in, and with special privileges.
As foreign trade began pouring into the country, the Japanese people realized everything they’d missed during the period of isolation. They saw that Western powers were rapidly colonizing East Asia and feared they would be next. The response was to overthrow the Tokugawa shogunate and restore the powers of the emperor.
They also studied modern philosophy, science and economics to industrialize and modernize as rapidly as possible. Over the course of just a few decades, Japan became a major economic power with a strong military based on European traditions. They also created a constitutional monarchy similar to Western nations where the emperor was the head of state, but there was a parliament created by the constitution.
Japanese Imperialism in World War II
Japan has referred to its leader as “emperor” for most of history, but it arguably wasn’t until the end of the 19th Century that the country truly acted as an expanding empire of conquest. Beginning with the Ryukyu islands, which lie south of Japan and include Okinawa, and the island of Hokkaido to the north, Japan started asserting its dominance on previously autonomous territories. At its height in 1942, the Japanese empire included what we now know of as Japan, Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, Manchuria and much of eastern China, Southeast Asia, and Indonesia, not to mention almost all the Pacific Islands including many taken from the United States.
Reasons for Imperialism
Japan’s dramatic 180-degree turn from small, isolated nation to expanding colonial power may seem bizarre, but it actually makes perfect sense. Sakoku isolation itself was the main factor that created the circumstances that encouraged Japan’s imperialism.
For one thing, Japan came out of isolation into a world completely foreign and, frankly, kind of scary. Imagine the technological and social changes that occurred between 1603 and 1853. This was the period of enlightenment in Europe, and Western nations went from feudal monarchies to industrial economies that could produce advanced machinery and weapons.
Sensibly, the Japanese realized the best defense was a good offense. They wanted to reach the same military and economic competence as the dominant powers of the day: the UK, the US, Prussia, France, etc.
As a result, Japan wanted colonies for two reasons. One was simply that if European powers were busy colonizing, they should be doing it too if they wanted to keep up. More importantly, though, Japan was and is an island nation without access to many natural resources, especially those like petroleum and iron which are necessary for building an industrial economy. To modernize the way they wanted to, they needed colonies that could provide these resources.
Of course, even historically speaking, it’s very rare that a nation invades another and justifies by simply needing resources even though it’s ironically almost always the reason. Imperial Japan was no exception. Its expansion was usually based on various pretexts such as avenging wrongs or protecting vulnerable peoples.
For example, in 1871, a Ryukyuan vessel shipwrecked in Taiwan, and the crew was murdered by the natives. Japan, having recently taken over the Ryukyu islands, sent a military expedition to Taiwan. This served the dual purpose of subduing the Taiwanese people as well as asserting their role as protector of the Ryukyu islands.
It also seems that despite the Meiji Restoration and institution of a civilian government, the shogun tradition of Japan still dominated military culture, because the expedition continued to Taiwan despite being ordered back by the government. From there on out, the military began to act more autonomously.
Incidents like this continued to provide justification for Japanese expansion. They often followed a pattern of Japanese forces moving in to protect a weaker Asian nation from Western colonialism. Eventually, the military outpost would gradually turn into a colony that extracted resources for the Japanese Empire.
Perhaps most notably, a false flag operation by Japanese military officials in China bombed a portion of railroad in Manchuria and then blamed the Chinese. This was referred to as the Manchurian Incident and was used as a pretext to invade Manchuria and set up a puppet government. Some scholars consider this the beginning of the war in the Pacific and arguably the start of World War II.
The Government of the Empire of Japan
By World War II, the military and politicians within it had gained extensive control over the Japanese government. They even attempted a coup in 1936 which was partially successful and killed many moderate civilian politicians. By 1940 they had near-total power and had eliminated most political parties.
During this time, Japan was essentially a military empire. Especially during World War II, the country was in a state of total war and any practical governance was handled by military officers. For example, the Prime Minister was General Hideki Tojo, responsible for planning the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor.
The emperor at the time was Hirohito, and exactly how much power he had is still the subject of scholarly debate. Many argue his role as emperor had merely returned to as symbolic one like during the days of the shogunate military dictatorships. However, Hirohito’s personal militarism is often easy to see in the black and white photos where he wears the traditional Japanese military uniform based on the renowned and feared Prussian army. Consequently, others believe he played a central role in encouraging and enabling Japanese imperialism.
The Military of the Empire of Japan
As Japan colonized Asia, the military was their main source of power. They used it to subdue native populations and extract resources for their growing economy. The military relied on both modern technology and traditional fighting techniques to form a fighting force that surprised the entire world when it came out of the gate in the late 19th Century.
After being an unimportant, isolated country, Japan exacted a number of upset victories over powerful opponents like Russia and China that created an intense military pride and esprit de corps. These were the feelings that would go on to promote the nationalism and militarism of World War II.
For young Japanese men, serving in the military was an honor and dying for the emperor an equal one. Japanese soldiers were known for fighting to the death, and the US military was shocked by how few prisoners surrendered.
Still, the patriotic population was not enough to fill Japan’s lofty ambitions. The military also began conscripting from its colonies in the latter part of the war. Mostly, these were rear laborers who suffered terrible conditions mining the resources and building the infrastructure necessary for the Japanese war machine. Some, however, saw frontline combat.
The Flag of the Empire of Japan
Before the Meiji Restoration, Japan did not really have a flag. Once they entered the world stage, they realized they needed one just like all the other countries. Based on historical designs and traditions, they created the flag we now know of called Hinomaru. This is the large red dot on a white background.
During Japan’s imperial period, the flag became a significant symbol. People displayed it everywhere to show support for the emperor. Soldiers carried flags decorated with messages from loved ones.
The military also started using the Kyokujitsu-ki, or Rising Sun Flag. You may recognize it as the flag with an off-center red sun surrounded by red rays. Since World War II, this flag has been seen as a symbol of Japan’s militaristic and imperial era.
Is Japan Still an Empire?
Depending on your definition, you could still classify Japan as an “empire.” After all, its head of state is referred to as an “emperor.” Plus, Japan still controls some of the territory it conquered during its expansionist phase like the Ryukyu islands.
Nevertheless, the Japanese government no longer refers to the country as an empire nor do other nations. Considering this, historians generally consider the Empire of Japan to have lasted from January 3, 1868, when the Meiji restoration returned the emperor to the throne, to May 3, 1947, when Japan instituted its post-war constitution during the American occupation.
The Role of the Military Today
Since World War II, Japan has not engaged in any military offensives. That’s because it isn’t allowed to. Japan’s treaty with the US stipulates that they can’t have an offensive military. That said, this treaty has become increasingly relaxed over the last 75 years.
Shortly after World War II, other conflicts like the Korean War sapped US resources and decreased the amount of military defense it could provide Japan. Therefore, it allowed Japan to create its own national defense force. Initially this was very small but has since grown into the world’s fourth most powerful military even though it is almost entirely devoted to humanitarian efforts. The US has been allowing Japan’s military to participate more in NATO operations, but only as rear support.
The Role of the Emperor Today
Today, as throughout most of Japan’s history, the emperor has but a symbolic role. He is nominally the head of state, but most of his powers are ceremonial. These include welcoming foreign diplomats and granting awards.
The emperor also technically appoints the prime minister and chief justice of the supreme court, but the nominees are produced by the legislature and the cabinet respectively, and the emperor must appoint them. According to the Japanese constitution, the emperor cannot have any powers related to the government and must always have the approval of the cabinet in matters of state.
The current emperor is Naruhito who rose to the throne in 2019 after his father Akihito abdicated due to poor health. He is the grandson of Emperor Hirohito who ruled Japan through World War II and revered as the 126th emperor in a line extending all the way back to the legendary Emperor Jimmu.
Will Japan Ever Be an Empire Again?
Within the Japanese population, many are ashamed of Japan’s imperialist past and enjoy the peaceful, prosperous existence it has now. Many others, though, see the current nation as a weak and submissive puppet trapped in America’s shadow, a mere remnant of the glory that it once was.
Japan’s military, though not active in combat, is immense and technologically advanced. As American resources get spread thin and American military might faces growing rivals, it is plausible that the US will further let the Japanese military off the leash, especially as US administrations increasingly turn their focus to the Pacific over Europe.
As of 2020, Japanese tensions with neighbors like China and North Korea are at an all-time high. Japan has accused China of spending record time in their territorial waters, and they have recently offered to build their own missile defense system instead of relying on a US system.
Could all this mean an aggressive, even expanding future for the Japanese military? Only time will tell.