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Emperor Emeritus Akihito: The Chrysanthemum Throne and Diplomacy

Japan's Chrysanthemum throne will continue to play a key role in enhancing interest in Japanese society, value systems, and cultural distinctiveness.



Crown Prince Akihito and Crown Princess Michiko visit Nistoli Village in the Lord Community Development Block, on December 1, 1960. (© Ministry of External Affairs of India)

On April 30, 2019, Emperor Emeritus Akihito stepped back from the Chrysanthemum Throne to live a more quiet life. This approaching fourth anniversary of his abdication provides a good opportunity to consider some of His Imperial Highness's enduring accomplishments.

Japan's imperial institution has survived for nearly 2000 years. Throughout its history, it would only be apposite to state that Japan's imperial throne has done far more than merely surviving modernization. It has played a positive role in the country's political modernization and evolution and in the effective stability of its governments. 

Lesser known is Emperor Emeritus Akihito's longstanding influence in the strong postwar relations built with India. This three-part series looks at Emperor Emeritus Akihito's distinct India connections.

Last of 3 parts

First part: Emperor Emeritus Akihito: Celebrating Connections Built With India in 1960 

Second part: Emperor Emeritus Akihito: The Second Trip to India in 2013

The Oldest Continuing Hereditary Monarchy

Being the oldest continuing hereditary monarchy in the world, Japan's Chrysanthemum Throne is a metonymic concept that represents the monarch and the legal authority for the existence of the Japanese government. It is a constitutional monarchy in which the monarch "reigns but does not govern." The Constitution of Japan regards the emperor as "the symbol of the State and of the unity of the people" who "shall not have powers related to government."

The metonymic meanings of the Chrysanthemum Throne encompass the modern monarchy and the chronological list of historical monarchs of Japan. Unlike its British counterpart, the concept of Japan's monarchy evolved relatively differently before 1947 when there was, for example, no perceived separation of the property of the nation-state from the person and personal holdings of the emperor. According to the Kojiki (published in 712) and the Nihon Shoki (720), Emperor Jimmu became the first Japanese monarch with his enthronement in 660 BCE, and founded the Empire of Japan.

Chrysanthemum Throne
Former Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu delivers a congratulatory address to the 125th Emperor of Japan, Emperor Akihito. (© Prime Minister's Office of Japan)

State-building as an Essential Component of Political Modernization

A primary reason for the dynasty of the Sun Goddess to retain its position since time immemorial is that the emperor, as a rule, has not insisted on making political decisions. He has been a constitutional monarch, by and large, wherein others made the decisions and took the consequences. 

The argument made by Herschel Webb in 1968 has been cited in The Japanese Imperial Institution in the Tokugawa Period. Throughout history, the emperor has thus been considered a legitimizer of power in Japan, rather than its exerciser.

In a paper presented at the 1967 Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association in Chicago, Theodore McNelly argued that in Japan "… the Imperial Institution turned out, historically, to be more permanently institutionalized than the Shogunate … The institutionalization of structures involves the creation of a set of attitudes and practices which tend to perpetuate the structure even if its functions change." 

Emperor of Japan, His Majesty Akihito and the Empress, Her Majesty Michiko depart India after their historic visit, Chennai, December 5, 2013. (© Ministry of External Affairs of India by Varadharajan/Photo Division)

A Modern Constitutional Monarchy

Further, writing in 1958, George Sansom (in A History of Japan to 1334) averred that as early as the sixth century, "… the Soga clan made a valuable contribution to the system of imperial rule as a political institution, by diminishing the actual power of the emperor to govern while upholding and perpetuating his right to reign as a symbol of national unity."

In contemporary Japan, the emperor is the principal symbol of the Japanese State. The position took form of becoming this symbol with the constitution of 1946, with modern Japan being built around a modern constitutional monarchy. Although the imperial line goes back centuries, the emperor had become the center of the new modern polity in 1868. All of Japan's modern institutions were built around the emperor: the constitution, the parliament, the bureaucracy, among others.

In the Meiji Constitution of 1889, all sovereignty rested in the hands of the emperor. While the Japanese monarchy has been around for a long time, it really evolved in its own way. Japan has played an important role in the global conversation of what it essentially means to be a modern state and a modern constitutional monarchy. Clearly, the Japanese monarchy has its own style, as Brandon Baker has argued.

Emperor Emeritus Akihito and Empress Emeritus Michiko visit children at the Spastic Society of Tamil Nadu in Chennai, on December 5, 2013. (© Ministry of External Affairs of India by Varadharajan)

A Symbol of Stability

The imperial institution of Japan has survived for nearly 2000 years. Meanwhile, its social, economic, and political infrastructures were undergoing evolutionary and revolutionary changes. Writing in Comparative Politics in 1969, Theodore McNelly was of the opinion that Japan's imperial throne had done far more than merely surviving modernization. It played a positive role in political modernization and evolution — that is, in the establishment of stable and effective governments.

According to Japan's traditional order of succession, Emperor Naruhito is the 126th and present Japanese monarch to occupy the Chrysanthemum Throne, acceding on May 1, 2019. This saw the beginning of the Reiwa era, following the abdication of his father, now Emperor Emeritus, Akihito. 

Japan's Chrysanthemum throne diplomacy will continue to play a key role in enhancing interest in Japan's society, exclusive value systems, and special cultural distinctiveness, thus assisting to enhance its bilateral relationships throughout the world.


Author: Dr Monika Chansoria

Dr Monika Chansoria is a Senior Fellow at The Japan Institute of International Affairs in Tokyo and the author of five books on Asian security. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect the views of any organization with which the author is affiliated. Follow her column, "All Politics is Global" on JAPAN Forward, and on Twitter @MonikaChansoria.

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