Japanese Empresses

photo of Tomb of Empress SuikoAn early historical account by Chinese travelers described the queen who ruled in Ancient Japan. She was called Pimiko meaning “sun-daughter” and had come to power in about 183 CE. She was elderly and had never married. She was adept in the ways of shamanism, having supernatural powers.

The story of a later empress, Jingu, who ruled in the 3rd century CE, is a combination of legend and fact. She seems to have become ruler of Japan upon the death of her husband. For a while she managed to keep his death a secret and put down revolts within the kingdom by acting in his name. Although she was pregnant with the future emperor, she put on men's clothing and went into battle. Using her powers as a shaman she claimed to hear the will of god tell her that the Japanese should invade Silla, now Korea and successfully led her troops in this war of conquest.

Later empresses fulfilled the function of bringing together warring groups and adding to Japan's dignity by encouraging culture and religion. One scholar suggested that the period in Japanese history between 592 and 770 CE be called the “Epoch of the Queens,” as one-half of the rulers during that time were women. Six women ruled as Female Emperors during this time period.

After the “Epoch of the Queens,” there were only two women who ruled as Japanese reigning female emperors. Both were children when they reigned and their reigns were brief ones. Although the practice of having female emperors was not officially made illegal until 1889 the custom virtually died out after the “Epoch of the Queens.” Today, however, Crown Prince Naruhito and Crown Princess Masako have only one child, a daughter, Princess Aiko. In January 2005 a panel of prominent Japanese began a review of the 1889 rule outlawing female emperors with the possibility of allowing the first-born of the emperor to succeed to the throne, regardless of sex. Their recommendations will be presented to Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi in September 2005 and then submitted to the Japanese parliament. If Princess Aiko does eventually succeed to the throne she will follow in the footsteps of those early empress during the “Epoch of the Queens.”

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Photo Credit:
Tomb of Empress Suiko, J. Edward Kidder, Jr.

Copyright © The Clio Project 2005