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The Emperor

There has been but one dynasty in Japan. In comparison, the last emperor of China was of the 23d or 24th dynasty. The literature of Shinto (Way of the Gods) employs much mythology to describe the supposed historical origins of Japan. According to the creation story found in the Kojiki (Record of Ancient Matters, dating from AD 712) and the Nihongi or Nihon shoki (Chronicle of Japan, from A.D. 720), the Japanese islands were created by the gods, two of whom--the male Izanagi and the female Izanami--descended from heaven to carry out the task. They also brought into being other kami (deities or supernatural forces), such as those influencing the sea, rivers, wind, woods, and mountains. Two of these deities, the Sun Goddess, Amaterasu Omikami, and her brother, the Storm God, Susano-o, warred against each other, with Amaterasu emerging victorious.

Subsequently Amaterasu sent her grandson, Ninigi, to rule over the sacred islands. Ninigi took with him what became the three imperial regalia -- a curved jewel (magatama), a mirror, and a "sword of gathered clouds" -- and ruled over the island of Kyushu. Ninigi's great-grandson, Jimmu, recognized as the first human emperor of Japan, set out to conquer Yamato. On the main island of Honshu, according to tradition he established the unbroken line of imperial descent from the Sun Goddess and founded the Land of the Rising Sun in 660 BC.

Gradually, from the inchoate elements of an Oriental civilization, was built up a dual empire, having as its sovereign heads a Mikado or Tenno, whose sway was spiritual and divine, and a Shogun or Tycoon, or temporal emperor. Of these, however, the original sole ruler was the Mikado, and from 663 BC, when Jimnu founded the throne of the Mikados, until the end of the twelfth century of the Christian era, the spiritual emperor reigned supreme.

Eventually, the entanglements of the central power with that of the feudal princes caused the creation of the office and rank of military chieftain, or generalissimo; and this office, in time, became endowed with all the civil and military domination of the empire. Little by little, the secular power was taken from the Mikado.In 1192 Minamoto Yoritomo [b. 1147— d.1199] began the double system which lasted in Japan down to the middle of the nineteenth century. He erected a puppet emperor or “Mikado” of the sacred royal race, and gave him for his residence the ancient and beautiful capital of Kyoto. Then Yoritomo had himself created “Shogun" or general-in-chief, with complete control of military affairs.

But if the Mikado was thus withdrawn from all participation in affairs of State, his ecclesiastical position was more exalted, and his divine attributes more pronounced and awful. According to the Shinto faith, the established religion of Japan, the Mikado was of divine origin. To be sure, there were five primeval deities, the chief of which was the Goddess of the Sun; but there is an innumerable company of born gods and deified mortals, most of whom are inferior to the Mikado, and in certain regular seasons they must wait upon him; during those occasions the temples are deserted and godless, only empty effigies remaining. The person of the Mikado was so sacred that he must dwell in utter seclusion, not touching the ground, or permitting his hair or nails to be trimmed, lest his body be desecrated. The vessels used in his service were immediately thereafter destroyed, lest they be touched by ordinary mortals. When he passed up into the heavens (i.e., died), a small and highly select company of the noblest of the land were permitted to commit hari-kari, thus happily despatching themselves in the train of the Vicar of Heaven on his way to his highest glory.

By the year 1000, Fujiwara Michinaga was able to enthrone and dethrone emperors at will. As the Son of Heaven, directly descended from mythic gods, and as chief priest and embodiment of all supernatural qualities in the national religion, Shinto, the emperor provides an icon of divine purity is handy to solve power struggles. In the past, Japanese strongmen who held the emperor hostage claimed that they derived their office from the throne (meaning from the gods). Anyone who challenged their rule was not only treasonous but blasphemous, deserving terrible punishment. For eight centuries Japan's emperors were kept hostage by military regimes, and defiant emperors were roughly treated.

The internal history of Japan during the period of time covered by the actual or nominal rule of the thirteen shoguns of the Ashikaga family, from 1336 until 1573 is not very attractive to a foreign reader. It is a confused picture of intestine war. The condition of the emperors was deplorable. With no revenues, and dwelling in a capital alternately in the possession of one or the other hostile army; in frequent danger from thieves, fire, or starvation; exposed to the weather or the dangers of war, the narrative of their sufferings excites pity in the mind of even a foreign reader, and from the native draws the tribute of tears. One was so poor that he depended upon the bounty of a noble for his food and clothing; another died in such poverty that his body lay unburied for several days, for lack of money to have him interred.

And in 1585, Taikosama, one of the great military heroes of Japanese history, founded the Shogunate or Tycoonate, and the separation of lay and spiritual power was complete. The remembrance of the wrongs and sufferings of these poor emperors fired the hearts and nerved the arms of the men who in 1868 fought to sweep away forever the hated system by which such treatment of their sovereign became possible.

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