Japan’s modern monarchy: How it works

Professor of Japanese history Frederick Dickinson explains the significance of the Japanese monarchy as a new emperor takes the throne—and President Trump becomes the first world leader to meet him.

Bridge hangs over water with palace in background
The Seimon Ishibashi Bridge at Tokyo Imperial Palace.

On May 1, Japan passed on the role of monarch to Emperor Naruhito—formerly Prince Naruhito, the son of Emperor Akihito, who served on the throne as a constitutional monarch since 1989. 

Atypical of the scenario is that the 85-year-old Emperor Akihito abdicated, marking the first time such a transfer of power has happened. Naruhito, who is 59, succeeded to the throne as Akihito’s oldest son and heir presumptive. President Donald Trump will travel to Japan in late May as the first foreign leader to meet the new emperor in the new “Reiwa” era. (The era name, translated to English by some as “beautiful harmony,” derives from waka poetry.)

Here, Frederick Dickinson, professor of Japanese history in the School of Arts and Sciences, explains the workings of the Japanese monarchy today, who the former and current emperors are, and the significance of President Trump being the first to meet Emperor Naruhito.


A lot of folks don’t know Japan still has an emperor. Why does Japan have an emperor and what does he do?

The emperor as we know it in today’s Japan is the principal symbol of the Japanese state. It became the symbol with the constitution of 1946. But modern Japan was built around a modern constitutional monarchy. Although the imperial line goes back centuries, the emperor became 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, etc. In the Meiji constitution of 1889, all sovereignty rested in the hands of the emperor. But that changed dramatically after 1945. Why didn’t we see an end to the imperial system after 1945? The answer is Douglas MacArthur.

If the modern emperor was the core of 19th century Japan, it also became the core of wartime Japan (1931–45). It could have easily been implicated in [World War II]. The emperor could have easily been tried as a war criminal. Many of our allies pushed for that, and there were many in Japan calling for abdication. But the Supreme Commander for Allied Powers, General MacArthur, thought, ‘No way, let’s use this emperor to recreate Japan.’ Which is a smart move. Because the modern state was fashioned around a particular idea of the emperor, so why not re-fashion the state after the war around a new idea for the emperor?

Did that work?

Definitely. I would say it worked not necessarily because of the Americans. MacArthur had an important part to play. But it worked because the Japanese already had a viable constitutional monarchy and democracy in the 1920s. So, even though Japan’s cities were obliterated during the war, there was an infrastructure in place. And it made sense to keep the emperor as an important sign of continuity. It was very controversial in Japan; many Japanese petitioned MacArthur to remove the emperor because the war and all its tragedies were perpetrated in the name of the emperor.

How did the current situation play out? What decides who takes his place?

There are succession laws in place from the 19th century, but the parliament had to actually create a new law to allow the emperor to abdicate because it’s the first time it has happened in the modern era. In other words, the infrastructure of the modern imperial system all goes into place in the latter-19th century, and that allowed for succession by the male heir after the death of the previous emperor. Since this emperor insisted he wanted to abdicate, the [Prime Minister Shinzo] Abe administration had to relent and say, ‘OK, if you want to do that we have to legislate it.’ So, they did.

It sounds a little like changing the laws in England to allow divorce.

Yes, but even a little more problematic, I think, because the immediate former emperor, Akihito, the Heisei emperor, was well-known for being an advocate of peace. He devoted his entire reign to apologizing to Japan’s neighbors, hammering home that post-war Japan symbolized peace, peace, peace, nothing but peace. He was good at that. He also understood that after 1945, within the new constitution, the emperor was in a very different position. Rather than enjoying full sovereignty, the emperor is only a symbol of state, so he continued to hammer home peace and the idea of emperor as symbol of state. But then, this very emperor said, ‘I want to resign, and you’re going to let me.’ That is not the behavior of a symbol emperor. That is an emperor making policy, which he’s not supposed to do. There was some discussion about that in Japan. It didn’t turn out to be as big an issue as the debate about women succeeding the throne, so he got his wish. He indicated to advisers in 2010—he had health issues—and in 2016 he made a public address on TV saying he wanted to resign. And he forced the hand of the Abe administration.

Most of the public sympathized with him because he is a likeable guy and did a lot of good things for Japan’s neighbors and the Japanese people. But that he played a strong political hand and won is sort of interesting.

What is his successor like?

His successor is very similar in the sense that he’s a likeable guy, though much more cosmopolitan. Akihito made many trips outside the country, but Naruhito is the first emperor to be educated outside the country—in Britain. He speaks good English, has impeccable cultural credentials—he’s a violist—he’s a fairly good-looking guy, not as short as his dad. The new empress is also foreign-educated—Harvard—speaks impeccable English, and was an aspiring diplomat within the Japanese Foreign Ministry before she married the crown prince in 1993. The new Japanese imperial couple has a presence that is sort of ‘normal’ in terms of the standards of global monarchy in the 21st century. That is, global, Western, constitutional monarchies.

In his first address, Naruhito, like his dad, stressed peace. I think he said it two or three times. And of course, the ‘wa’ of Reiwa indicates a desire to continue the great era of peace Japan has enjoyed since 1945. That won’t disappear. But Naruhito will probably come up with his own signature global issue, whether it’s climate, water, sustainability, etc.

President Trump will be the first world leader to meet him. What is the political dynamic of that with the Abe administration?

Abe, politically, did not at all get along with Akihito because the emperor symbolized a post-war peace culture Abe has gone on record as specifically trying to overcome. But Abe realizes the importance of the emperor and the imperial line, and is making every use of it he can. Abe directly asked Trump to be the first foreign dignitary to meet with the emperor. It’s an attempt to accentuate the continuing importance of the U.S.-Japan security alliance. Abe was just in Washington, they’re going to see each other in Tokyo this week, and President Trump will visit Osaka in June for the G20 meeting, so two months and three summits in a row. That’s pretty impressive. Not even during the heyday of the so-called ‘Ron-Yasu relationship’ [the friendship between Ronald Reagan and Yasuhiro Nakasone in the 1980s] did the U.S.-Japan alliance seem so close. Ron and Yasu never bonded on the golf course like Abe and Trump often do. I’ve never seen anything like this Abe-Donald lovefest. When you see the photos and the body language, they actually like each other. There was never any similar chemistry between Abe and Obama. It does make a difference.

And what is the sense of ritual embodied in the emperor today?

It really is the latter 19th, early 20th century [that was] a critical time for world monarchy to embed itself within the lives of modern subjects. This is happening at the same time in Britain, Holland, Denmark, they’re borrowing and lending ideas of ritual and parades, and have ceremonies in palaces with mirrors and chandeliers, but also have a religious component related to their own indigenous religious traditions. All these things are being fashioned globally at the same time in the latter 19th, early 20th century. That, for me, is the interesting part of this story: The Japanese monarchy has been around for a long time and has not just been doing its own thing, but has really evolved in a way that we see happening elsewhere across the globe. And the Japanese royal family has had, because of its early 20th century alliance with the British, a particularly strong relationship with the British monarchy, and that’s why Naruhito was at Oxford for a while.

It’s a reminder that monarchy is a viable institution in the 21st century and is not just a Western invention. The Japanese have played an important role in the global discussion of what it means to be a modern state and a modern constitutional monarchy. Clearly, the Japanese monarchy has its own style. With the British royals, the latest thing is Meghan and Prince Harry’s baby. The global media goes wild over, ‘Isn’t that a cute couple, and so cosmopolitan …’ and that clearly plugs into a global discussion of what monarchy is. The Japanese never get as great press as the British, but I was surprised to see how much the global media actually covered the Reiwa transition. It wasn’t as upbeat a discussion as with the British royals, but as P.T. Barnum said, ‘There’s no such thing as bad publicity.’

Who decides something like the Reiwa name when there’s an era transition?

There was a committee. Prime Minister Abe had the final word, at least he had a veto. I think the current emperor himself was shown what the options were, though as a symbol monarch he’s not supposed to have a say in anything. He was given the courtesy. According to the Japanese press, Abe really had a strong role—he wanted final right of refusal to help guide the committee of seven or so academics, a mix of mainly specialists of culture and literature, including two women. Although deliberations were not made public, it’s the first time that the press identified the committee—which is another nice vision of how monarchies continue to evolve. The American media would want us to believe that everything about the Japanese monarchy is old and in dire need of reform, but among other things, it’s interesting to see with Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga holding up that Reiwa sign, the idea there still is a royal line that chooses reign names from literary classics, that’s sort of novel. And it’s a preservation of a tradition that began in China. And that in part is a great source of pride for the Japanese; not only do they have a modern, constitutional monarchy, but it happens to be an Asian monarchy that preserves certain traditions that go back much farther than any monarchy on earth.

Anything to add?

I think this is another great teaching moment for Americans, who tend to think of monarchies as nothing more than relics of the past. The Reiwa transition reminds us yet again that a number of very viable modern states preserve monarchical traditions, which serve very important functions. My colleague in the Wharton School, Mauro Guillen, just had a nice piece in Knowledge@Wharton talking about the economic and political benefits of monarchies. Among other things, monarchs can serve as powerful symbols of continuity in times of crisis. You could certainly point to the Japanese case to say that’s true. Especially the 1945-46 transition.

Like the U.S. today, Japan remains a country divided politically and culturally. Many liberals in Japan don’t like the Abe administration or want anything to do with it. But these same citizens have a new sense of pride in their country in the vision of a new young, energetic imperial couple. One might say that in a politically and culturally divided U.S. without a monarch, it is more difficult for opponents of the Trump administration to feel a sense of pride in their own country. Of course, the monarchy can also be used for invidious purposes, as it was in Japan during the Second World War.  

The Reiwa transition reminds us that there are many viable monarchies across the globe, and they are all evolving with the times.