Throughout Japanese history, the role of the Emperor has shifted from being a symbolic role to being the true imperial ruler. Japan’s Emperor has become a sort of representation of continuity with regards to the past and dates back to as early as 660 BC.
History of Japan’s Emperors
According to historians, Japan borrowed the title “Emperor” from the country of China, particularly from a set of characters from the Chinese language. A total of 125 emperors, including the current Emperor, have ruled Japan from 660 BC.
Emperors before 7th – 8th century AD are classified as Legendary Emperors, while those beyond are categorized according to Period:
Legendary Emperors are those who ruled from 660 BC to 269 AD. These emperors include Emperor Jimmu, Emperor Suizei, Emperor Annei, Emperor Itoku, Emperor Kosho, Emperor Koan, Emperor Korei, Emperor Kogen, Emperor Kaika, Emperor Sujin, Emperor Suinin, Emperor Keiko, Emperor Seimu, Emperor Chuai, and Empress Jingu.
The Kofun Period is considered to have transpired from 270 to 539. Due to the rather distorted chronology of Japan’s historical sources, the Kofun Period serves as the earliest time frame with recorded history.
Some of the defining characteristics of the Kofun Period include the rise of the Shinto culture, the development of Kofun tombs, the Yamato Court, and Japan’s introduction to material culture.
Emperors who reigned during the Kofun Period include Emperor Ojin, Emperor Nintoku, Emperor Richu, Emperor Hanzei, Emperor Ingyo, Emperor Anko, Emperor Yuryaku, Emperor Seinei, Emperor Kenzo, Emperor Ninken, Emperor Bretsu, Emperor Keitai, Emperor Ankan, and Emperor Senka.
The Asuka Period, also known as the Asuka Jidai, went on from 538 to 710. Some experts say that the start of the Asuka Period overlapped with the Kofun Period but, generally, the two periods are regarded as separate times.
During this time, the Yamato Court which was established years before rapidly grew. The Asuka Period is also defined by how much the social, political, and artistic aspects of the Japanese community transformed after Buddhism was introduced to the country. It was also during this period that the term used to refer to Japan was changed from Wa to Nihon.
Emperors who reigned during the Asuka Period include Emperor Kinmei, Emperor Bidatsu, Emperor Yomei, Emperor Sushun, Empress Suiko, Emperor Jomei, Empress Kogyoku, Emperor Kotoku, Empress Saimei, Emperor Tenji, Emperor Kobun, Emperor Tenmu, Empress Jito, Emperor Monmu, and Empress Genmei.
The Nara Period, or Nara Jidari, covers the time from 710 to 794. Empress Genmei, the first emperor of the period, established Heijo-kyo as capital; Heijo-kyo is now known as Nara. This remained the capital of Japan until 784 when Emperor Kanmu changed it to Nagaoka-kyo. After ten years, the capital was once again moved, this time from Nagaoka-kyo to Heian-kyo, or present-day Kyoto.
Defining events or matters during the Nara Period include the rural lifestyle of the Japanese community, the worship of gods and ancestral spirits, and the upper classes’ adaption of various Chinese influences including religion, fashion, and system of writing.
Emperors who reigned during the Nara Period include Empress Genmei, Empress Gensho, Emperor Shomu, Empress Koken, Emperor Junnin, Empress Shotoku, Emperor Konin, Prince Sawara, and Emperor Kanmu.
The Heian Period, or Heian Jidai, transpired from 794 to 1185 and is regarded to be the last part of Japan’s classical history. It is aptly named after the then capital city of Japan which was Heian-kyo that is now known as Kyoto.
The definitive characteristics of the Heian Period include the peak of Buddhism, Taoism, and Chinese influences. It was also during this time that the Japanese Imperial was at its highest, and became known for its advances in literature and poetry.
However, although there were still emperors during this period, the ones who truly had power over the affairs of Japan were the members of the Fujiwara Clan. The Fujiwara Clan was among the most powerful families of the Japanese aristocracy. Members of the Fujiwara Clan were able to gain even more power by intermarrying with members of the Imperial Family.
Emperors who reigned during the Heian Period include Emperor Kanmu, Emperor Heizei, Emperor Saga, Emperor Junna, Emperor Ninmyo, Emperor Montoku, Emperor Seiwa, Emperor Yozei, Emperor Koko, Emperor Uda, Emperor Daigo, Emperor Suzaku, Emperor Mrakami, Emperor Reizei, Emperor En’yu, Emperor Kazan, Emperor Ichijo, Emperor Sanjo, Emperor Go-Ichijo, Emperor Go-Suzaku, Emperor Go-Reizei, Emperor Go-Sanjo, Emperor Shirakawa, Emperor Horikawa, Emperor Toba, Emperor Sutoku, Emperor Konoe, Emperor Go-Shirakawa, Emperor Nijo, Emperor Rokujo, Emperor Takakura, and Emperor Antoku.
The Kamakura Period, or Kamakura Jidai, went on from 1185 to 1133. This period is considered to mark the start of Japan's shogun system, particularly when Minamoto no Yorimoto was appoinred as the first shogun of the Kamakura shogunate in 1192.
Among the defining matters of the Kamakura Period include the rise of samurai warriors, the destruction of the shogunate, and the relatively short revival of the Imperial Court’s power over Japan.
Emperors who reigned during the Kamakura Period include Emperor Go-Toba, Emperor Tsuchimikado, Emperor Juntoku, Emperor Chukyo, Emperor Go-Horikawa, Emperor Shijo, Emperor Go-Saga, Emperor Go-Fukakusa, Emperor Kameyama, Emperor Go-Uda, Emperor Fushimi, Emperor Go-Fushimi, Emperor Go-Nijo, Emperor Hanazono, and Emperor Go-Daigo.
The Northern Court, or hokucho, refers to the time when a group of six emperors, sometimes referred to as the Ashikaga Pretenders or the Northern Pretenders, who reigned from 1333 to 1392.
After the fall of the Kamakura Shogunate, the newly appointed shogun, Ashikaga Takauji, declared Emperor Kogon to be the new emperor of Japan. Acting as puppets for the Ashikaga shogunate and having the support of the Ashikaga shoguns, members of Kogon’s family alternated in claiming rights to the throne.
Emperors who reigned during the Northern Court include Emperor Kogon, Emperor Komyo, Emperor Suko, Emperor Go-Kogon, Emperor Go-En’yu, and Emperor Go-Komatsu.
The Muromachi Period, or Muromachi Jidai, transpired from 1336 to 1573, give or take a few years. It is also sometimes referred to as the Ashikaga Period, the Ashikaga Era, or the Muromachi Era. The period is aptly named after the ruling shogunate of the time – the Ashikaga shogunate.
In terms of culture, the Muromachi Period can further be divided into the Higashiyama Period and the Kitayama Period. During these times, particularly from late-fifth century to early-sixteenth century, Western influences made their way to Japan through trade and politics.
Other defining matters of the Muromachi Period include the development of Zen Buddhism, the Japanese community’s renewed interest in Shinto, and the increased popularity of Christianity.
Emperors who reigned during the Muromachi Period include Emperor Go-Daigo, Emperor Go-Murakami, Emperor Chokei, Emperor Go-Kameyama, Emperor Go-Komatsu, Emperor Shoko, Emperor Go-Hanazono, Emperor Go-Tsuchimikado, Emperor Go-Kashiwabara, Emperor Go-Nara, and Emperor Ogimachi.
The Azuchi-Momoyama Period, or Azuchi-Momoyama Jidai, started in 1568 and ended in 1600. It is regarded to be the final division of Japan’s Sengoku Period or Sengoku Jidai.
Among the various events that took place during this period, the establishment of the Tokugawa Shogunate stands as the most important in Japanese history. This period also serves as the defining moment when the Japanese lifestyle, culture, and community transitioned from the medieval ways to a much more modern era.
Emperors who reigned during the Azuchi-Momoyama Period include Emperor Ogimachi and Emperor Go-Yozei.
The Edo Period, also referred to as the Tokugawa Period or Tokugawa Jidai, lasted from the year 1603 until the year 1868.
Some of the defining characteristics of the Edo Period include the rule of the Tokugawa Shogunate, the existence of about three hundred daimyos (warlords), the impressive growth of Japan’s economy, the establishment of a strict social order, the Japanese community’s perception of art and culture as an enjoyable form of entertainment, and the isolationist foreign policies.
Emperors who reigned during the Edo Period include Emperor Go-Yozei, Emperor Go-Mizunoo, Empress Meisho, Emperor Go-Komyo, Emperor Go-Sai, Emperor Reigen, Emperor Higashiyama, Emperor Nakamikado, Emperor Sakuramachi, Emperor Momozono, Empress Go-Sakuramachi, Emperor Go-Momozono, Emperor Kokaku, Emperor Ninko, and Emperor Komei.
Modern Japan refers to the current state of the country which started in 1867. It is also referred to as Imperial Japan, Postwar Japan, or Post-Occupation Japan. The period is defined by how Japan established itself as a body of global political and economic power after the end of the Allied Occupation.
Emperors who reigned during Modern Japan prior to Incumbent Emperor Kinjo include Emperor Meiji, Emperor Taisho, and Emperor Showa.
Emperor Jimmu – 1st of the Legendary Emperors
Emperor Jimmu, or Jinmu-tenno, is regarded to have been the very first Emperor of Japan. His reign lasted from 660 BC to 585 BC, give or take a few years. According to local mythology, Emperor Jimmu was a descendant of Amaterasu, the goddess of the sun, and Susanoo, the god of storms.
Emperor Ojin – 1st Emperor of the Kofun Period
Emperor Ojin, or Ojin-tenno, reigned from 270 to 310 and served as the 15th Emperor of Japan. He also went by the names Hondawake and Homutawake.
He is often identified as Emperor Nintoku’s father in various historical texts. After his death, it is believed that Emperor Ojin became a guardian of warriors known as Hachiman Daimyojin.
Emperor Kinmei – 1st Emperor of the Asuka Period
Emperor Kinmei, or Kinmei-tenno, served as the 29th Emperor of Japan and reigned from 539 to 571. Aside from being the first Emperor of the Asuka Period, Emperor Kinmei is also regarded to be the earliest Japanese Emperor with which several historiographies can confidently assign correct dates.
Empress Genmei – 1st Empress of the Nara Period
Empress Genmei, or Genmei-tenno, was the first monarch of the Nara Period and the 43rd monarch in Japanese history. Monarchs before her include Empress Jito, Empress Saimei, and Empress Suiko, while those after her include Empress Gensho, Empress Koken, Empress Meisho, and Empress Go-Sakuramachi.
Emperor Kanmu – 1st Emperor of the Heian Period
Emperor Kanmu, or Kanmu-tenno, served as the 50th emperor of Japan who reigned from the year 781 to the year 806. According to records, his personal name was Yamabe. He had a total of sixteen consorts and empresses, of which he had more than thirty children. Three of his sons, particularly Emperor Junna, Emperor Saga, and Emperor Heizei, also claimed their rights to the throne after several years.
Emperor Gotoba – 1st Emperor of the Kamakura Period
Emperor Gotoba, or Go-Tobo-tenno, reigned from 1183 to 1198. He is regarded to have been the 82nd Emperor of Japan. Similar to other emperors whose names start with “go”, Emperor Gotoba was named after an emperor who preceded him – Emperor Toba.
The Japanese term “go” literally translates to mean “later” in English, hence the reason behind why some texts refer to him as The Second Emperor Toba, Toba II, or Toba the Second.
Emperor Kogon – 1st Emperor of the Northern Court
Emperor Kogon, or Kogon-tenno, was one of the six emperors who made up the period known as the Northern Court. According to records, Kazuhito-shinno served as his personal name. He was born to Kogimo’in Nieshi on August 1 of the year 1313 and was adopted by Emperor Hanazono, his uncle.
Emperor Godaigo – 1st Emperor of the Muromachi Period
Emperor Godaigo, or Go-Daigo-tenno, served as the 96th Emperor of Japan who reigned from 1318 to 1339. He is known for having overthrown the Kamakura Shogunate during the year 1333 and for establishing the Kenmu Restoration.
Emperor Ogimachi – 1st Emperor of the Azuchi-Momoyama Period
Emperor Ogimachi, or Ogimachi-tenno, was the 106th Emperor of Japan. He reigned from 1557 to 1586, right around the time when Japan was transitioning from the Sengoku Period to the Azuchi-Momoyama Period.
Emperor Goyozei – 1st Emperor of the Edo Period
Emperor Goyozei, or Goyozei-tenno, reigned from 1586 to 1611. He was the 107th Emperor of Japan and witnessed Japan’s transition from the Azuchi-Momoyama Period to the Edo Period. He was named after Emperor Yozei of the ninth century and is, thus, sometimes referred to as The Second Emperor Yozei, Yozei II, or Yozei the Second.
Emperor Meiji – 1st Emperor of Modern Japan
Emperor Meiji, or Meiji-tenno, served as the 122nd Emperor of Japan who reigned from 1867 to 1912. During his reign, Japan was going through rapid changes as a nation. By his last day on earth, Japan had already undergone a great industrial, social, and political revolution, dubbing him the title Meiji the Great.