Japanese Imperial Regalia

Japanese Imperial Regalia

The Imperial Family

The Japanese Imperial family is the oldest hereditary monarchy in the world. The family's lineage dates back to the sixth century BC, though the title of Tenno (emperor) or Sumera-Mikoto (heavenly sovereign) was assumed by rulers in the sixth or seventh century and has been used since. The family crest (right) is the kiku, or chrysanthemum.

The role of the Emperor (and occasionally the Empress - there have been 8 to date) has varied in importance. Considered a divine being until the end of World War II, the postwar Constitution made him the "Symbol of the state". He plays a largely ceremonial part in the life of the nation.

Legendary Origins

According to Japanese mythology, the first emperor of Japan, Jimmu, was a descendant of the sun goddess Amaterasu and the storm god Susanoo, two hugely important figures in the Shinto religion. Ancient Japanese texts state that Jimmu ascended to the throne in the year 660 BC since his reign, the royal hereditary line is said to have remained unbroken. While there is little historical evidence to support the verity of the ancient royal family tree, there is substantial evidence of the last 1,500 years of the hereditary line, beginning with Emperor Kinmei who ruled from years 539 to 571. From the reign of Kinmei to the current emperor, Akihito, the throne has been continuously succeeded by the next male heir in line.

Male Emperors Only

Matters related to the imperial family including succession and regency are laid out in the Imperial House Law.

Japan&rsquos Emperor and Imperial Family

The Constitution states that the &ldquoImperial Throne shall be dynastic.&rdquo Historically, there have been cases where sons of concubines have ascended to the throne. There have also been female emperors. According to the current Imperial House Law, however, only &ldquo a male offspring in the male line belonging to the Imperial Lineage&rdquo may become emperor, and there are no immediate signs that this is likely to change.

The imperial family comes together to celebrate New Year on January 1, 2020

(Banner photo: Emperor Naruhito, third from left, and other members of the imperial family wave from the balcony of the Imperial Palace in Tokyo to a crowd celebrating the New Year on January 2, 2020. All photos courtesy of the Imperial Household Agency.)


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 Tokugawa shogunate was overthrown, and Emperor Meiji became the head of state. Under the new Meiji constitution, the Emperor held sovereign power, and his political and military power was theoretically close to absolute. In practice, however, the real power first laid with the oligarchic genro 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 and diplomatic meetings 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.

Books About Japan's Imperial Family

Unless otherwise noted, these books are for sale at Amazon.com. Your purchase through these links will result in a commission for the owner of the Royalty.nu site.

Books By Members of the Japanese Imperial Family

The Thames and I: A Memoir of Two Years at Oxford by Crown Prince Naruhito of Japan, translated by Hugh Cortazzi. An account of English university life, customs and mores as seen from the perspective of the future emperor.

Tomoshibi Light: Collected Poetry by Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko. Published in 1991, this book collects 166 poems by Japan's former emperor and 140 by the empress. Some were written for the imperial family's annual New Year's Poetry Reading, and others mark special events in the Japanese calendar. Translated and annotated.

Lulie the Iceberg by Her Imperial Highness Princess Takamado, illustrated by Warabe Aska. This children's picture book, written by the wife of a cousin of Emperor Akihito, tells the story of an iceberg who travels from the North Pole to the South Pole. For ages 4 to 8.

Prince and Princess Chichibu: Two Lives Lived Above and Below the Clouds by Princess Chichibu of Japan, translated by Dorothy Bouchier. Autobiography of the wife of Emperor Hirohito's brother, originally published in 1996 as "The Silver Drum." This edition contains expanded chapters about the princess's early life.

Imperial History

The Chrysanthemum Throne: A History of the Emperors of Japan by Peter Martin. The Japanese imperial dynasty can be traced back some 1,600 years, making it the world's oldest hereditary monarchy. This first general study of the institution throughout its history includes material previously available only in Japanese.

Enigma of the Emperors: Sacred Subservience in Japanese History by Ben-Ami Shillony. A study of the Japanese emperors from their mythological beginnings up to the present day, focusing on the notions of divinity, gender and subservience or passivity.

A Chronicle of Gods and Sovereigns by Chikafusa Kitabatake. History of Japan's emperors before 1333. Written in the 14th century.

Emperor of Japan by Eiji Ina. Photographs of the misasagi, or burial mounds, of all 124 Japanese emperors since the Kofun period, reaching back some 1,600 years.

Critical Readings on the Emperors of Japan edited by Ben-Ami Shillony. Despite their political and military weakness, the emperors of Japan enjoyed a sacred status and could not be overthrown. This four-volume publication presents articles on emperors from the ancient past until modern times.

Ancient Japan

The World of the Shining Prince by Ivan Morris, edited by Paul De Angelis. Court life in ancient Japan.

Imperial Politics and Symbolics in Ancient Japan: The Tenmu Dynasty, 650-800 by Herman Ooms. The Tenmu dynasty began and ended in bloodshed. Its years in power were marked by succession struggles, murders, and accusations of black magic.

The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon: The Diary of a Courtesan in Tenth Century Japan translated by Arthur Waley. This diary of a young courtesan of the Heian period chronicles court ceremonies and celebrations at the palace of Empress Teishi, providing glimpses of the manners and foibles of the aristocracy.

Diary of Lady Murasaki by Murasaki Shikibu, edited by Richard Bowring. The author, a lady of the Japanese court, kept this diary between 1007 and 1010. Spiced with sharp sketches of a timid empress, spineless courtiers, and quarrelsome ladies-in-waiting, it reveals the underside of imperial splendor.

The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu. Celebrated as the world's first novel, this book (written by the author of The Diary of Lady Murasaki ) tells the epic story of an emperor's son and offers a lively glimpse of 11th century Japan.

Medieval Japan

The Clear Mirror, edited by George W. Perkins. A chronicle of the Japanese court during the Kamakura period (1185-1333), written by an anonymous court noble in the 14th century.

Emperor and Aristocracy in Japan, 1467-1680: Resilience and Renewal by Lee Butler. Traces the fate of the imperial court from the lowest point in the turbulent sengoku period to its more stable position in the Tokugawa period.

Edo Period

The Princess Nun: Bunchi, Buddhist Reform, and Gender in Early Edo Japan by Gina Cogan. Tells the story of Bunchi (1619-1697), a Buddhist nun who was the daughter of Emperor Go-Mizunoo, showing how her aristocratic status enabled her to carry out reforms despite her gender.

Modern Emperors & Their Relatives

The Emperors of Modern Japan edited by Ben-Ami Shillony. Essays look at recent emperors -- Meiji (Mutsuhito), Taish (Yoshihito), Shwa (Hirohito), and the present emperor, Akihito -- both as personalities, and as a constantly developing institution. Topics include the role of the emperors and their wives, Hirohito's war responsibility, and succession rules.

The Yamato Dynasty: The Secret History of Japan's Imperial Family by Sterling Seagrave and Peggy Seagrave. An unflattering look at the imperial family in the 20th century.

Imperial Biologists: The Imperial Family of Japan and Their Contributions to Biological Research by Hideo Mohri and Yoko Kawazoe. Japan's Emperor Hirohito was an expert on hydrozoans and slime molds. Emperor Akihito is a respected ichthyologist. Prince Hitachi is an expert in comparative oncology.

Emperors of the Rising Sun by Stephen S. Large. Biographies of three recent emperors: Meiji, Taisho, and Showa (Hirohito).

The Age of Emperor Akihito: Historical Controversies Over the Past and the Future edited by Takeshi Suzuki. An investigation of the role of Japan's emperor as a national symbol.

Princess Masako: Prisoner of the Chrysanthemum Throne by Ben Hills. Biography of the wife of Japan's Emperor Naruhito. The author interviewed the royal couple's friends, teachers, and former colleagues, many of whom have never spoken publicly before.

The Emperor's Adviser: Saionji Kinmochi and Pre-War Japanese Politics by Lesley Connors. Saionji Kinmochi was an aristocrat who served as Prime Minister of Japan twice during the 20th century and was adviser to three emperors.

Traces: Memories of H.I.H. Prince Takamado, Plus Memorial Essays From Around the World by Stephen Comee. Prince Takamado, who died in 2002, was a cousin of Japan's Emperor Akihito.

British Royal and Imperial Relations, 1868-2018: 150 Years of Association, Engagement and Celebration by Peter Kornicki, Antony Best, and Hugh Cortazzi. The history of relations between the British and Japanese monarchies over 150 years.

Japanese Monarchy

Japan's Imperial House in the Postwar Era, 1945-2019 by Kenneth J. Ruoff. An expanded and updated study of the monarchy's role in contemporary Japan. (Previously published as The People's Emperor.)

The Splendid Monarchy by T. Fujitani explores the power and pageantry of the modern imperial family.

Learning the Sacred Way of the Emperor: The National Ideals of the Japanese People by Yukata Hibino, translated by A. P. McKenzie. About the conceptions and ideals of the Japanese people in the early part of the 20th century. Includes chapters on the duties of an imperial subject, the basis of the imperial state, national institutions, and the imperial destiny.

Emperor Meiji

Emperor of Japan: Meiji and His World, 1852-19 by Donald Keene. A rich portrait of Meiji and the rapid, sometimes violent change during this pivotal period in Japan's history.

The Meiji Restoration: Monarchism, Mass Communication and Conservative Revolution by Alistair Swale. Account of how real imperial rule was restored in Japan in 1867 under Emperor Meiji.

Gendered Power: Educated Women of the Meiji Empress' Court by Mamiko C. Suzuki. Focuses on the role Chinese classics (kanbun) played in the language employed by elite women, including Empress Haruko.

Emperor Hirohito

Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan by Herbert P. Bix argues that contrary to popular belief, Hirohito was no mere figurehead but played an active part in governing Japan during World War II. This book won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction.

Emperor Hirohito and Showa Japan by Stephen Large. This political biography of Hirohito shows how the emperor's character and personal influence were crucial in preserving a significant monarchy.

Hirohito: The Showa Emperor in War and Peace by Hata Ikuhiko. The author is regarded as a leading historian of contemporary Japan.

Showa, edited by Carol Gluck and Stephen Graubard. Explores the Japan of Hirohito.

Gold Warriors: America's Secret Recovery of Yamashita's Gold by Sterling Seagrave and Peggy Seagrave. Looks at the role played by the Japanese imperial family during World War Two.

Second World War

Emperor Hirohito and the Pacific War by Noriko Kawamura. Traces Hirohito's actions from the late 1920s to the end of the Second World War. He was by no means a pacifist, but neither did he favor reckless wars.

Hirohito and War by Peter Wetzler is about imperial tradition and military decision making in prewar Japan.

Downfall: The End of the Imperial Japanese Empire by Richard B. Frank. The disintegration of the Japanese Empire was one of the most dramatic episodes of World War II.

The Rhetoric of Emperor Hirohito by Takeshi Suzuki. Investigates the wartime role of Japanese emperor Hirohito and changes to the Emperor System.

War and Responsibility in Japan: The Role of the Emperor and the War Occupation Debates by Kiyohiko Toyama. A reappraisal of the emperor's responsibility for Japan's conduct during WWII.

In the Service of the Emperor: Essays on the Imperial Japanese Army by Edward J. Drea. Looks at the imperial army during the Second World War.

Emperor Akihito

Return to Japan by Elizabeth Gray Vining. Written by a former tutor to Crown Prince Akihito, who shares her observations of great political and social changes in Japan.

Japanese History & Constitution

The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Japan, edited by Richard John Bowring and Peter Kornicki. One-volume reference book about Japanese history.

The Cambridge History of Japan: Volume 1 edited by Delmer M. Brown, deals with the history of ancient Japan. The other books in the series are The Cambridge History of Japan: Volume 2, about the Heian period (794 to 1185) Volume 3, Medieval Japan, edited by Kozo Yamamura Volume 4, Early Modern Japan by John W. Hall Volume 5, The Nineteenth Century, edited by Marius B. Jansen and Volume 6, The Twentieth Century, edited by Peter Duus.

Japan: A Concise History by Milton W. Meyer. Authoritative overview of 2,000 years of Japanese history. Approximately half of the text deals with pre-Meiji Japan, the period before 1868. The second half covers events since 1868.

The Samurai Capture a King - Okinawa 1609 by Stephen Turnbull. The Shimazu clan raid on the kingdom of Rykkyu (modern Okinawa, Japan) in 1609 is one of the most extraordinary episodes in samurai history. This is a blow-by-blow account of the operation, including the spectacular kidnapping of the king of Rykkyu. Includes specially commissioned artwork.

The Constitution of Japan by Shigenori Matsui. Explains the current constitution, including the emperor's role, as well as the constitutional history of Japan.

A History of Japan to 1334 by George B. Sansom. The first volume of a classic reference work about Japanese history. The other volumes are A History of Japan, 1334-1615 and A History of Japan, 1615-1867.


The Commoner: A Novel by John Burnham Schwartz. In 1959, a woman named Haruko marries the Crown Prince of Japan. The consequences are tragic and dramatic.

Children's Books

Princess Kiko of Japan by Tim O'Shei. Biography for children ages 9 to 12.

Kazunomiya: Prisoner of Heaven, Japan 1858 by Kathryn Lasky. Fiction from the Royal Diaries series. For children ages 9 to 12.

Himeji Castle: Japan's Samurai Past by Jacqueline A. Ball and Stephen Brown. For children ages 9 to 12.

Kusanagi no Tsurugi - the sacred sword

The location of the Kusanagi no Tsurugi - or grass-cutting sword - is not clear, but it may be at the Atsuta Shrine in Nagoya.

Legend says it grew in the tail of an eight-headed serpent that was devouring the daughters of a wealthy family.

The father appealed to Susanoo for help, promising marriage to his last uneaten daughter if he could rid them of the snake. Susanoo tricked the serpent into getting drunk, then cut off its tails, finding the sword.

But he didn't have it for long - it too was used in his efforts to make up with his sister, Amaterasu.

The sword represents the bravery of the emperor. Because so little is known about it and where it is kept, some question whether the sword actually still exists.

It's certainly been kept in secret - one priest who reported having seen it in the Edo period (some time between the 17th and 19th Century) was banished.

There are rumours it may have been lost at sea during a 12th Century battle, but Mr Takenaka says that may itself have been a copy, and that a duplicate of that, kept at the palace, is used for coronations.

When Emperor Akihito came to the throne in 1989 he was given a sword said to be Kusanagi no Tsurugi. But the box he was given remained unopened.

The Sino-Japanese War

By the early 1890s Chinese influence in Korea had increased. In 1894 Korea requested Chinese assistance in putting down a local rebellion. When the Chinese notified Tokyo of this, Japan quickly rushed troops to Korea. With the rebellion crushed, neither side withdrew. The Sino-Japanese War formally erupted in July 1894. Japanese forces proved to be superior on both land and sea, and, with the loss of its northern fleet, China sued for peace. The peace treaty negotiated at Shimonoseki was formally signed on April 17, 1895 both sides recognized the independence of Korea, and China ceded to Japan Formosa, the Pescadores Islands, and the Liaotung Peninsula, granted Japan all rights enjoyed by European powers, and made significant economic concessions, including the opening of new treaty ports and a large indemnity in gold. A commercial treaty giving Japan special tax exemptions and other trade and manufacturing privileges was signed in 1896. Japan thus marked its own emancipation from the unequal treaties by imposing even harsher terms on its neighbour. Meanwhile, France, Russia, and Germany were not willing to endorse Japanese gains and forced the return of the Liaotung Peninsula to China. Insult was added to injury when Russia leased the same territory with its important naval base, Port Arthur (now Lü-shun), from China in 1898. The war thus demonstrated that the Japanese could not maintain Asian military victories without Western sufferance. At the same time, it proved a tremendous source of prestige for Japan and brought the government much internal support it also strengthened the hand of the military in national affairs.

How the Japanese Imperial Family, the World’s Oldest Royal Line, Transcends Time

BU art and architecture researcher Alice Tseng views artworks on display in the Museum of Fine Arts Royal Celebrations exhibition, which comprises prints and postcards detailing centuries of celebrations attended by Japan’s imperial family.

The Japanese imperial family—the oldest royal line in the world—is in the midst of a historic transition of reign. By talking with Alice Y. Tseng, chair of Boston University’s department of history of art & architecture, it becomes clear that despite the Yamato Dynasty’s continuity of power (126 monarchs and counting since 660 BCE), Japan’s royal family has bound generations together through strong traditions that continue to shape the country’s culture, infrastructure, and public policy.

Tseng, who is a College of Arts & Sciences associate professor of Japanese art and architecture, has done extensive research on Japanese art and architecture, revealing a cohesive story of the imperial family’s influence through time. Her book Modern Kyoto: Building for Ceremony and Commemoration, 1868–1940, published in October 2018, explores the architectural and urban changes that happened in Kyoto after Japan’s imperial family moved to Tokyo in 1868. She also was a consultant for the Museum of Fine Arts exhibition Royal Celebrations, a collection of prints and postcards depicting the Japanese imperial family throughout history, which is on display until the end of July. Tseng, using her insight from the Royal Celebrations exhibition and from her research that went into the writing of her book, reveals how the past still influences the Japanese imperial family as the new emperor and empress start their reign.

On April 30, 2019, former Emperor Akihito, the 125th monarch to rule in the line of Japan’s imperial family, willingly abdicated the Japanese throne. It was an extremely rare move for a member of the imperial family (the likes of which has not happened since 1817, when Emperor Kokaku became the first emperor in several hundred years’ time to rule past the age of 40, after which he decided to hand over the throne to his much younger and healthier son). Likewise, upon the recent abdication of Akihito, who is currently 85 years old, the throne was passed to his son and successor, Naruhito.

For Akihito to be able to give up the throne, which he wanted to do for age- and health-related reasons (not unlike his ancestor Kokaku), Akihito went through a lengthy process to persuade Japanese cabinet members to change an existing law that prevented him from abdicating. Since ascending the throne on May 1, 2019, Emperor Naruhito, along with his wife, Empress Masako, are now preparing for October of this year, when the formal enthronement ceremony will take place.

The Brink spoke with Tseng about the historical influence of Japan’s imperial family in hopes of gleaning a better understanding of how tradition is shaping what we will see surrounding the enthronement of Japan’s new emperor, Naruhito, and empress, Masako.

The Brink: How has art depicted the imperial family over time?

Before the modern period, which began in the mid-19th century, portraits of elite men and women were created for private use, typically for posthumous memorial services rather than for personal appreciation or pleasure. Popular circulation of the emperor’s image was completely out of the question since the emperor was considered to be a living, divine being. A radical shift occurred after Japan began diplomatic and cultural exchanges with Europe and the United States in the 1850s, when members of the imperial family and the nobility participated in the international practice of exchanging formal portraits. This exchange practice—and the introduction of photography—regularized the creation and circulation of portraits for every emperor and empress since then.

The Brink: You were a consultant for the MFA’s Royal Celebrations exhibition, a collection of Japanese prints and postcards that depicts past ceremonies—including enthronements, weddings, births, and state visits—of the imperial family. In light of the historic transition happening in Japan right now, as Emperor Naruhito prepares for his formal enthronement ceremony later this year, are there specific pieces from Royal Celebrations that you feel are especially meaningful for us to look at today?

All of the works on display at this exhibition, prints and posters created in large quantities starting in 1868 with the reign of Emperor Meiji, were, for the first time in Japanese history, produced for popular consumption. That aspect of these works drew me to them…the fact that before Japan’s defeat in World War II in 1945 (when the emperor ceased to be considered a divine being), his image could nonetheless be freely circulated in myriad creative designs and endless copies. The open visibility of the Emperor Meiji, his consort, and his children, directly connects to the current celebrations of the new reign that started on May 1. The ascension event and enthronement ceremonies, which will take place this fall, are for all of Japan’s people and those around the world to witness and celebrate, encouraging speculation and excitement about the future to come.

What I love about looking at the works in Royal Celebrations is to see how artists freely mixed imagination and documentation to express the imperial subject. For example, a Tanaka Ryōzō print showing the emperor seated inside the Takamikura throne, is a fanciful and richly detailed rendering, although not particularly accurate or to scale. Tanaka conveys the grandeur of the throne structure and royal figure successfully through the luxurious palette of primary colors and fine patterns. Another particularly fine work in the collection is a postcard that features a collage effect of subdued black-and-white imagery juxtaposed against the texture of embossing and the sheen of metallic pigment. These artworks depict the sacred solemnity and spirited splendor of the enthronement ceremonies.

The Brink: Women traditionally have not been allowed to attend an emperor’s ascension ceremony, and Empress Masako was not exempt from that old rule during Emperor Naruhito’s ascension ceremony. Despite this, she recently played an integral role in a state visit with the Trumps. How are the roles of women in Japan’s imperial family shifting over time?

The full visibility of the emperor, and of the empress as his equal partner, to the world may be considered the norm today. However, it was only since the Empress Emerita Michiko that the imperial couple presented themselves as a singular unit. In the time of the Emperor Emeritus Akihito’s parents and grandparents, the emperor and empress routinely visited events on separate days and even when they made joint appearances, the empress walked several steps behind her spouse to indicate deference. The new emperor shows every sign of wishing to continue to uphold his empress as a significant and equal partner. The laws that dictate imperial rituals and succession need to catch up.

The Brink: Has the imperial family’s personal preferences for art influenced how they have been depicted through time?

The imperial family, since the rise of Japan’s warrior-led military governments, has exercised little to no political power. Instead, beginning in the 12th century, the imperial court oversaw rites and rituals and practiced the elegant arts. Imperial family members and Japanese nobility patronized artists and craftsmen who perpetuated classical styles and traditional methods. In the mid-1850s, the imperial family continued to act as patrons by purchasing new works of art that today are put on display at national art and industrial exhibitions. More recently, the imperial family continues to attend cultural events, host poetry readings, and make appearances at prize presentation ceremonies. However, since participating in these activities constitutes their official duties, the emperor and empress’ personal aesthetic preferences remain largely unknown to the public.

The Brink: Since the imperial family moved to Tokyo in 1868 under Emperor Meiji’s reign, how has their residence there influenced the city’s culture and architecture?

When the emperor moved from Kyoto to Tokyo, he took over the former shogun’s castle as his new palace, a move that was both symbolic and practical (the shogun was the leader of the ousted regime). Architecture in the city changed most immediately to accommodate new functions of diplomacy and trade with Western nations it also changed to showcase Japan’s modernization and industrialization. The most representative project of the late 19th century associated with the imperial family would be the construction of the new imperial palace, which was finished in 1888, replacing the makeshift castle-turned-palace (which had burned down). The new palace was built to feature two distinct halves. The outer official section, built in European style, was used for ceremonies and meetings. The inner private section, built in Japanese style, was used for the imperial family’s residence. That sense of duality still lives on today in Japanese architecture, and also notably in Japanese dress and cuisine as well. People choose Western or Japanese style to match the occasion and function without having to permanently commit to just one or the other.

The Brink: In your recent book, Modern Kyoto, you pose this question: Can an imperial city survive, let alone thrive, without an emperor? What’s your take on that?

Imagine if the president of the United States suddenly left Washington, D.C., to settle in another major city, taking with him his family, cabinet, and the entire federal government. What would happen to the identity and civic life of the city that they left behind? This is roughly what Kyoto experienced with the loss of an emperor in residence, starting in 1868 when the emperor (and the entire imperial family) moved to Tokyo. My book starts with the large question of whether Kyoto could not only survive the loss but continue to function as an imperial city without him. The short answer is yes. But only because of a constellation of factors that aligned perfectly.

The Brink: What were those factors that set up Kyoto so well to hold on to its imperial lineage after the emperor and his family moved to Tokyo?

There are three factors that I mainly consider.

First, the persistence of important advocates. The local political, civic, economic, and religious leaders of Kyoto rallied tirelessly to keep the city running and relevant. Emperor Meiji himself and many of the nobility who left with him for Tokyo continued to work on behalf of the old capital while out in the new one. Meiji maintained a personal tie to his birthplace and eventually insisted on being buried there.

Second, Kyoto comprised a wealth of historic sites. Having served as the imperial capital since 794 CE, Kyoto boasted a great accumulation of sites, buildings, and objects affiliated with a long, continuous imperial line. The gardens, palaces, temples, and mausolea (and the artistic treasures collected inside) were sites of imperial memory that Kyoto’s advocates leveraged to keep the affiliation with the emperor’s reign alive. Preservation, management, and creative reuse of the sites—and the opening of many of them for the first time to domestic and international tourists—were key to sustaining their collective identity as imperial properties.

Third, the power of new construction. Few people are aware of the large-scale infrastructural, urban, and architectural developments in the modern period that bolstered the character of Kyoto as a historic capital. The building of a new canal for sourcing water and electricity, a comprehensive streetcar system, a main train station to connect to Tokyo and Osaka, and clusters of modern architecture for higher education and cultural institutions accentuated the existing urban configuration. Transportation was especially key for giving the public easy access to old and new sites of cultural-historic interest.

Japanese Imperialism and the Road to War

How do nations create their identities by separating “us” from “them”? How might a sense of nationalism built around such ideas contribute to the outbreak of war, the dehumanization of enemies, and the perpetration of atrocities?

Guiding Questions

  • What are some factors that could fuel a nation’s desire to become aggressive toward its neighbors, expand its territory, and create an empire?
  • In Japan, how did a “we”-and-“they” attitude toward China begin to take hold? What were some of the causes for that attitude?

Learning Objectives

Students will understand the underlying causes of Japanese imperialism and wartime aggression, including the rise of militarism, ultranationalism, and isolationism.


In this lesson, students explore primary and secondary sources that shed light on the underlying causes of the outbreak of World War II in Asia. Students examine the rise of Japanese Pan-Asianism, militarism, and ultranationalism, and the racial and imperialist ideologies underpinning them. They also consider Japan’s needs, as a rapidly industrializing country, for China’s natural resources, and its increasingly isolationist stance after what it perceived as mistreatment by imperial Western powers and in the League of Nations. Taken together, these sources give students insight into the complexity of the factors that led to the outbreak of war and provide a framework that will help students prepare to investigate the Nanjing atrocities in the next lesson.


In 1895, a year after the end of the first Sino-Japanese War, writer Lafcadio Hearn Lafcadio Hearn recounted:

The real birthday of the new Japan . . . began with the conquest of China. The war is ended the future, though clouded, seems big with promise and, however grim the obstacles to loftier and more enduring achievements, Japan has neither fears nor doubts. Perhaps the future danger is just in this immense self-confidence. It is not a new feeling created by victory. It is a race feeling, which repeated triumphs have served only to strengthen. 1

Japanese imperialism was not simply about increasing the nation’s territory. It was also fueled by a strong ideological sense of mission and racial superiority. These ideas were captured in a word widely used at the time but rarely heard today: Pan-Asianism. Advocates of Pan-Asianism in Japan believed that they were expanding their empire in order to liberate Asian territories from Western imperialism. 2 In the minds of many Japanese, expanding their empire into other Asian regions was somehow different from that sort of imperialism. They thought of their ambitions as bringing their Asian brethren together.

As was the case with many other imperial powers at the time, such differences were often framed in a language of racial, ethnic, and cultural superiority. Many Japanese nationalists, for instance, claimed that Japan’s rapid and successful modernization was a testament to the nation’s superiority and signaled Japan’s rightful place as the Asian leader in the region. Some believed that a necessary ingredient in furthering the expanding Japanese empire was to separate and distinguish themselves from neighboring China, despite the fact that a great deal of Japanese culture is rooted in traditions from China.

Despite the embrace of imperialist ideology in Japan, the country’s territorial expansion across East Asia unfolded gradually. Korea became a Japanese colony in 1910, and with the death of Emperor Meiji in 1912 and the ascension to power of his first son, Yoshihito, Japan’s Taisho era (1912–1926) began. In the midst of this transition, World War I broke out in Europe during the summer of 1914. Japan declared war in August 1914 and immediately sent troops to fight German forces in German colonial territories in China, including Qingdao (Tsingtao), points in Shandong, and German-held islands in the Pacific. Japan also sent naval ships to assist the Allies in the Mediterranean.

With European powers focused on the war effort, Japan in 1915 presented China with a diplomatic ultimatum known today as the Twenty-One Demands. Failing to agree to them, the Japanese threatened, would result in more war. With the political support and negotiating muscle of Great Britain and the United States, most of the demands were ultimately rejected by Chinese leaders, yet they still took a toll, further fracturing an already fragile republican government. Japan’s demands marked a new chapter in the nation’s growing militarism and expansionism. With the outbreak of World War I, Japanese manufacturing and trade experienced a tremendous boom as many domestic industries filled a large gap left by Europe’s devastated markets. As Japan’s economic prosperity grew, so did its population. In 1900, Japan’s population was 45 million. By 1925, it had reached 60 million, with the majority residing in cities rather than in the countryside.

This rapid population growth stretched Japan’s natural resources and food supplies, propelling the country’s leaders to look beyond the nation’s shores to meet domestic needs, including raw materials and space to settle for the growing populace. Ultranationalist groups within Japan’s government, military, and civilian population also advocated for the expansion of Japan’s territory to meet resource needs and to fulfill their imperial and ideological ambitions. 3 By the early 1920s, fearing China’s political consolidation as a possible regional rival, Japanese militarists and ultranationalists pursued an even more aggressive policy toward China. The ultranationalists and militarists demanded that Japan’s imperial forces prevent the Chinese nationalist government from controlling Manchuria, a Chinese territory where Japan held substantial commercial and political interests. By 1928, Japan’s militarist prime minister, Tanaka, sent troops to China. To him and his followers, expanding into Manchuria made sense politically, as additional territory would help ease Japan’s raw material shortage and offer a place to reside for the growing population.

With the Chinese government severely destabilized by the escalating conflict between the Chinese Communist Party and the Nationalist Party, Japanese Imperial forces capitalized on that vulnerability and successfully occupied the Manchurian city of Mukden (Shenyang) and the whole of Manchuria (in China’s northeast) by 1931. This marked the beginning of nearly a decade and a half of Japanese territorial expansion into the Asian mainland and is known by some Chinese as the start of the war of resistance to Japanese invasion that lasted from 1931 to 1945. For others, the occupation of Manchuria stands as the precursor and sets the stage for the outbreak of World War II in China.


  • Lafcadio Hearn : Lafcadio Hearn arrived in Japan in 1890 as a journalist and later was appointed to several universities to teach English. He married a Japanese woman, changed his name to Koizumi Yakumo, fathered four children, renounced his British citizenship, and “adopted” Japan as his home country. Hearn published widely about his life in Japan. He died of heart failure in 1904.

Notes to Teacher

Previewing Vocabulary
This lesson asks students to define the term Pan-Asianism after watching a video that introduces the concept. Students may need extra support to learn and retain this term. As a substitute or in addition to watching the video, you might want to provide the following definition for students and place it on a Word Wall that they can revisit throughout the unit.

Watch the video: Japonsko z výšky 2 Ze země sněhu do Tokia