According to mythology, Japan's first emperor, Emperor Jimmu, was a descendant of the Sun Goddess Amaterasu and enthroned in the year 660 BC. While the myths are not considered historically accurate, it is commonly accepted that emperors have reigned over Japan for more than 1500 years, and that they have all descended from the same family. The imperial crest is a 16-petaled chrysanthemum flower.

Despite the fact that the effective power of the emperors was limited or purely symbolic throughout most of Japan's history, all actual rulers, from the Fujiwara and Hojo regents to the Minamoto and Tokugawa shogun respected the emperor and were keen in having the imperial legitimization for their position as rulers.

With the Meiji Restoration of 1868, the shogunate was overthrown, and Emperor Meiji became the head of state. Under the new constitution, the emperor held sovereign power, and his political and military power was theoretically close to absolute. In practice, however, the real power laid first with the oligarchs and later with the prime ministers, generals and admirals.

The postwar constitution of 1946 states that the emperor has only a symbolic function. He now mainly participates at ceremonies but has no effective political power. In 2019, Emperor Naruhito became Japan's 126th emperor. He is married to Empress Masako.

Places of interest related to the Imperial Family

Imperial palaces

Besides the current imperial palace in the center of Tokyo, there are a few other former palaces of the Imperial Family that are of interest to tourists. While most buildings cannot be entered, some of the palace grounds can be viewed by tourists.

  • Tokyo Imperial Palace
  • Kyoto Imperial Palace
  • Sento Palace
  • Heijo Palace

Imperial villas

Imperial villas were built as secondary homes and retreats for emperors or members of the Imperial Family. Several of them have been preserved or survive as parts of temple complexes.

  • Shugakuin Villa••
  • Katsura Villa••
  • Ninnaji Temple••
  • Daikakuji Temple
  • Tamozawa Villa

Shrines which enshrine the spirits of former emperors

The spirits of some former emperors have been enshrined at shrines across Japan.

  • Usa Shrine
  • Meiji Shrine
  • Heian Shrine
  • Kashihara Shrine

The Imperial Regalia

The Imperial Regalia (sanshu no jingi) are the symbols of the legitimacy of the emperors and the most sacred objects in Shinto. They consist of a mirror, jewel and sword.

According to Japanese mythology, the sacred mirror was used to lure Amaterasu, the Sun Goddess, out of a cave where she had withdrawn after her brother Susanoo, the God of Seas, had misbehaved himself. The mirror is now stored at the Inner Shrine of Ise.

The sacred sword was discovered by Susanoo in the tail of an eight headed dragon that he had killed. The sword is now stored at the Atsuta Shrine in Nagoya.

Together with the mirror and the sword, the sacred jewel was handed by Amaterasu to her grandson Ninigi no Mikoto, when she sent him down to earth. He again handed the three regalia to his great-grandson Jimmu, who became the first emperor of Japan. The jewel is now stored at the Tokyo Imperial Palace.