The Japanese monarchy, also known as The Chrysanthemum Throne, is the oldest in the world. Japan also has the world’s only remaining Emperor.
The Emperor has always been a revered and influential figure, but his power has varied over time. The original Emperors were influential leaders of a divided country. Between the 12th and 19th centuries, Japan was fought over and controlled by a variety of ruthless shoguns. Their authority needed official approval from the Emperor, although he didn’t really have much choice.
In 1889, the Meiji Constitution granted the emperor the same “reserve powers” as other modern monarchs. However, these were vague enough to be exploited by politicians and others around the Emperor.
Hirohito & WWII
In the 1940s, Emperor Hirohito was used to drive the Japanese people into war. The nationalistic government exploited his “arahitogami” (“god who is a human being”) status to demand absolute obedience from the Japanese people.
He was reluctant to lead his people into war, and constantly sought ways to prevent more conflict. Nevertheless, he is seen as vicious war criminal by many people, who hold him responsible for the war atrocities committed by Japanese troops in Asia. In August 1945, in a nationwide radio broadcast, he declared Japan’s unconditional surrender. It was the first time common Japanese people had heard an Emperor’s voice.
Following WWII, he was reduced to a ceremonial role. US General MacArthur decided to keep the Emperor as head of state, despite President Truman’s desire to have Hirohito tried for war crimes. Hirohito publicly renounced his arahitogami status.
Akihito: the current Emperor
Hirohito’s son, Akihito, is the current and 125th Emperor of Japan. Seeing the modern British royals as a model, he has strived to bring the Japanese royal family closer to their people. Many were shocked in 1959, when he married Michiko Shoda, an industrialist’s daughter who became the first commoner to marry into the royal family.