Is Emperor Worship Really a Thing in Japan?

Emperor Jinmu

Is the Japanese Emperor a God?

“Do the Japanese worship the emperor as a god?” This is a question I get all the time. Anyone who’s seen a WWII documentary about the Pacific War has probably come away with the impression that the Japanese emperor is god. The native faith of Japan is 神道 Shintō, literally, “the way of the gods.” Traditionally, this has been a decentralized, polytheistic, animistic religion whose oldest myths describe the imperial family as descendants of the sun goddess, 天照 Amaterasu. However, having divine blood was not the same as being a god. It wasn’t until a period from 1868 to 1945, the time of the Japanese Empire, that the State promulgated the idea of “emperor worship”[i] for about 60 years or less. Of course, Japan is an ancient country, and the story is much more complicated than that.

Emperor Jinmu with bow and arrow
Emperor Jinmu – the “first” emperor of Japan

From Ancient Times to 1868

The most distant period of Japanese history is 神代 Kamiyo the Age of the Gods. In this mythological time, legends tell us that the divine grandson of the sun goddess herself established a court on earth which embarked on illustrious conquests of the Japanese archipelago. The divine grandson’s grandson became the first emperor[ii], and to this day the imperial family still has the ancient and noble blood of the sun goddess coursing through their veins, or so it has been said. As time went on, warrior clans, known as 侍 samurai came to hold not just military power but also political power. The imperial family was still important, but were relegated to Shintō rituals in the imperial capital of 京都 Kyōto and served as pawns in elaborate martial chess games played by samurai warlords during the Japanese Middle Ages. Military rulers called 将軍 shōguns never abolished the imperial line, but relied on them for ceremonial legitimacy, thus there was general harmony between the parallel imperial and shōgunal lines[iii] right up until the 1850’s.

Yasukuni Shrine in WWII
Soldiers prepare for battle at Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo

State Shintō and the Empire of Japan

In 1868, a bizarre revolution took place in Japan. Disaffected antiforeign, pro-isolationist samurai used the restoration of imperial rule as a means to topple the current samurai government[iv] which had overseen 250+ years of strict isolationism. The revolutionaries “restored imperial rule” after roughly 700 years of emperors just performing religious ceremonies, writing poetry, and conferring titles upon the samurai court in 江戸 Edo (present day 東京 Tōkyō). Again, the emperor was just a pawn, but rebels now used his “divine origins” to emphasize their so-called righteous overthrow of the Edo Government. As a descendant of sun goddess – who was herself the embodiment of Japan[v] – the emperor became, in effect, the head of all Shintō religions in addition to the august symbol of the country. The term “State Shintō” didn’t really exist until the final years of WWII, but it was a concept for military propagandists in the short-lived fascist Japanese Empire. Hirohito, the Shōwa Emperor[vi], was also used as a chess piece – this time as a justification for things like kamikaze pilots, fighting-to-death rather than surrender, and for citizens to kill themselves and their families in defense of the divine emperor and his divine realm in which they were fortunate enough to be subjects. The military-controlled fascist government twisted the myths of divine imperial descent into “emperor worship.”

Imperial Palace after WWII
Bowing in front of the Imperial Palace (former Edo Castle)

Post-War Japan

There is a famous photo of presumably ordinary Japanese citizens gathered in front of 正門 seimon the main gate of the Imperial Palace[vii] and bowing low to the ground to pay respects to the Shōwa Emperor after he announced Japan’s surrender to Allied Forces at the end of WWII. This photo depicts the last gasp of State Shintō and therefore “emperor worship.” General McArthur assumed control of Japan during the Occupation and initial reconstruction – including the Tōkyō War Crimes Tribunal which purged the Japanese Empire’s top military leadership. Despite eliminating all cadastral branches of the imperial clan, he protected Emperor Hirohito and, in effect, the direct male line since 1868[viii]. However, in the early days of the Occupation, McArthur demanded that the emperor renounce his divinity as a direct repudiation of State Shintō. Furthermore, separation of religion and government was expressly written into the new Japanese Constitution and it took root. These days, if you meet a person who considers the emperor a living god, you’ve probably found a complete loon. In fact, Japan is one of the most secular nations on earth and outside of history geeks and old timers, many modern Japanese are unfamiliar with State Shintō as a concept[ix].

Verdict

Reiwa Tenno
Current emperor and empress of Japan

So, is emperor worship a thing in Japan?
The short answer is “No. The Japanese emperor is not a god.”


While deeply revered as the descendants of the sun goddess, emperors were never worshiped as living gods except for a short period during the build up to WWII[x]. This attitude, known as State Shintō, began as a way to legitimize the emperors in their new position as constitutional monarchs after 1868. In fact, I’d venture to say that Hirohito[xi] was the only one actually worshipped as a living god – at least until 1945. Now the Japanese imperial family is similar to the royal families of Europe, just much more private and therefore far less scandalous. Also, due to the secular nature of modern Japanese society, the concept of gods – let alone a single living, human god seems like an alien concept.

Further Reading:

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[i] This wasn’t a unique idea. Just look back at the Roman Empire which deified their emperors, initially after death, then eventually while they were still alive.
[ii] His name was 神武 Jinmu and the beginning of his reign, February 11th, 660 BCE, the Japanese government still considers this date the birthday of Japan. It’s a national holiday. By the way, ancient chroniclers completely made up that date, 660 BCE. The first verifiable, historical emperor reigned during the 6th century CE.
[iii] There were a few times when an emperor here and there got uppity, but the samurai governments controlled the military, so that usually didn’t last for very long.
[iv] The samurai government in Edo was tbe Edo Shōgunate (or, the Tokugawa Shōgunate). The Tokugawa clan were the hereditary rulers of this peaceful dynasty. It had recently become begrudgingly anti-isolationist and pro-“modernization,” but still very much a military, samurai government. If you’re confused, so were they! This revolution is still cause for much debate today. Some call it a “restoration,” I call it a “coup.” But no matter what your position is, it’s a fascinating and dramatic stretch of Japanese history.
[v] “Japan” literally means “source of the sun” and usually poetically translated as “the land of the rising sun.”
[vi] In Japan, there is a taboo against saying the names of emperors. Rather, they are known by their posthumous names which – since 1868 – have been used as era names. Hirohito is the Shōwa Emperor.
[vii] Actually, they are bowing in front of the gate. No commoner would ever be allowed access to any of these bridges and gates until recently – and even now, most gates and bridges to the castle are still off limits.
[viii] 1868 was the Meiji Coup – the overthrow of the legitimate samurai government by the clowns who put Japan on a collision course with WWII.
[ix] The national curriculum is a topic for another article lol
[x] I have to note one major exception. When you die in Japan, you become a 神 kami. This term is sometimes translated as “god.” This is a kind of ancestor worship. Upon accession to the Chrysanthemum Throne, emperors take a posthumous name. You could argue that they’ve already become kami at this point. But this is a discussion for religious scholars, not a travel blog.
[xi] The Shōwa Emperor – ie; the WWII emperor.