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The Emperor and the Shogun: Understanding Japanese History

I have so far covered some information about Tokugawa Ieyasu in three blog posts: The Glorious son of Japan, Resolution in Defeat and Setting up the Succession. These posts have been well received but many have found it hard to understand certain Japanese terms and the entire context of the posts I write. To that end, this post will cover the essentials two offices: The Emperor of Japan and the Shogun. Note that I will not be covering all the relevant information, but only that which is necessary for understanding the period of Tokugawa Ieyasu and the Early Modern Period of Japan.

Japanese History, like all national histories, is long and complex. But unlike other histories, Japan never really faced an invasion that had disastrous consequences. [1] Therefore Japan has a unique culture whose historical tropes, while taking cues from China and Japan, remained isolated and developed as such.


Emperor Jimmu, a woodblock printing  by Ginoko Adachi. Source

The Emperor of Japan: The Japanese have the longest set of unbroken ruling monarchs, legend dating it back to the Legendary Emperor Jimmu. And there we have the first specialty of Japan: they have the world’s last remaining Imperial Family and a legitimate, recognized ‘Emperor’. The Emperor is called Tennō, or heavanly sovereign. The current Emperor is Naruhito, who assumed power after his father Akihito abdicated on the 1st of May, 2019. The Emperor is now only a political figurehead, with the Japanese Parliament, the National Diet, holding all political authority according to the Constitution of 1947. This does not however mean that the Emperor is not prominent in public life. The Japanese Calendar literally revolves around the reign of the Emperor, with each reign being an era in the Calendar. This means that with the recent abdication of Emperor Akihito, the Heisei era ended,  and the new Reiwa era began. The eras are named after the posthumous names of the Emperors that are given by the Japanese Cabinet when the emperor accedes to the throne.

The Japanese Emperor is an important figure in the Shinto religion, and is considered a direct descendant of the Sun Goddess Amaterasu. For a long time in the beginning of Japanese History, the Emperor was seen independent of the political hierarchy, and in many periods the political relevance of the Emperor was limited. The Emperor was seen as a divine being, but this was officially renounced by Emperor Hirohito in 1946 in what is known as the ‘Humanity Declaration’. [2] But even today, the Emperor has an important role in the culture and tradition of Japan.


Minamoto no Yoritomo, the first Shogun who exercised political authority.  His clan however did not have power after his death due to the minority of his son, Minamoto no Yoriie. This gave the opportunity for the Hojo clan to control the shogunate. 

The Shogun: As mentioned in my post about Tokugawa Ieyasu, he founded the Tokugawa Shogunate, the last shogunate of Japan. What are Shoguns though? They are akin to military dictators of our modern era, military men who assumed political power and controlled the actions of the Emperor. The Shoguns were originally titled as “Sei-i Taishōgun” which translates to something like “The General to fight the barbarians”. This post was created during the Heian period to counter an invasion by certain tribes. [3] This post however then evolved in the centuries hence, with Minamoto no Yoritomo, who established himself as the first Shogun in Kamakura and exercising virtually of the Emperor’s political authority. The Shogunate, once established, was a post of birth basesd succession.

The Shogunate, or the Bakufu developed around the Shogun. The Shogunate can be considered as the bureaucratic corpus of the nation. In certain periods therefore, the officials of the Bakufu gained more power and importance than the Shogun himself. In fact, after the death of Minamoto no Yoritomo his father-in-law Hōjō Tokimasa became the actual power centre, assuming the title of Shikken. Though the Shikken were officially merely regents of the Shogun, but in reality, exercised full control of his actions. This post was essentially monopolized by the Hojo clan till the Kamakura Shogunate fell in the 14th century, to be replaced by the Ashikaga Shogunate. The Ashikaga Shogunate fell by the way side after the Onin war, and thus began the Sengoku Jidai, or the Senguko period in which there was near constant war between various Japanese feudal lords.



[1] Japan was occupied at the end of the Second World War, but while the Americans did dump a lot of cultural tropes in the dust bin, it did not really destroy the history and the collective memory of the people, unlike others.

[2] This was done under the direction of the Supreme Commander for the Allied Forces, American General Douglas MacArthur.

[3] The Heian period is extremely unique, and hopefully we will cover it in the future.


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