The Emperor’s Birthday: Celebrating Centuries of History

Anyone hoping to see the monarchy and the inner-grounds of the Imperial Palace simultaneously should plan a visit for February 23 — the Emperor’s Birthday (天皇誕生日 or “Tenno Tanjoubi”) — which is always a public holiday.

First-timers in Tokyo usually have a list of “must-sees”, which along with Tokyo Skytree and Senso-ji, but don’t forget to include the home of Japan’s royal family, the Imperial Palace.

Emperor Akihito is the 125th emperor of Japan, and he has been the head of Japan’s monarchy since his father, Emperor Showa, passed away in 1989.

He and his family primarily reside within the Tokyo Imperial Palace (known in Japanese as kokyo), which has been the main home of the royal family since the Meiji Restoration in 1868.

His successor, Emperor Naruhito’s birthday is on February 23. Since 2020, that date has become the Emperor’s Birthday.  

History of the Emperor’s Birthday

The public holiday associated with the emperor’s birthday is a product of Japan’s post-war constitution.

It was originally connected to April 29 (the birthday of Emperor Showa) but it moved to December 23 when Emperor Akihito succeeded him. Funnily enough, though, April 29 has remained a public holiday, albeit under a different name.

Which Era is Japan in Now?

The time period in which an emperor reign is assigned a specific era, for example, the Showa era and Meiji era, are among the most recent.

Did you also know that the Showa era had its very own holiday known as Showa Day? Well, with that out of the way, Emperor Akihito’s reign is also often referred to as the Heisei (平成) Era, of which “Heisei” means “achieving peace”.

Since 2019, the current Japanese calendar is Reiwa Era. The kanji is written as “令和”, which means “beautiful harmony”.

Japan’s Unique Monarchy

The Japanese word for the emperor is Tenno (天皇), which literally means “heavenly sovereign”. This fitting description corresponds well to the myth of Japan’s first emperor, Jimmu, who was thought to have been a descendant of the Sun Goddess, Amaterasu.

Although Emperor Jimmu’s connection to the sun may be ambiguous, the duration of Japan’s monarchy isn’t. The Imperial Family is regarded as the world’s oldest continuous hereditary monarchy, reigning for over 1500 years.

Their crest and official seal is a 16-petaled chrysanthemum (kiku) which can be found on the front cover of Japanese passports as well as the ¥50 coin.

However, in Japan’s case, the name for the head of the monarch is merely a difference of titles, making the function more similar to the Queen of the United Kingdom.

After WWII, the emperor relinquished governmental power and political engagement, becoming “the symbol of the State and of the unity of the people”.

King vs. Emperor?

Most of us are pretty familiar with the terms, king and queen, but out of all 43 countries with a monarchy, Japan is the only country to have an emperor and empress.

So, what is the difference between the two? An emperor can be thought of as the “king of kings”, whilst an empress is the “queen of queens”.

It follows that historically, emperors and empresses would possess more power than kings and queens. However, in Japan’s case, the name for the head of the monarch is merely a difference of titles, making the function more similar to the Queen of the United Kingdom.

How is the Emperor’s Birthday Celebrated?

The best place to celebrate this holiday is in Tokyo. Every year, Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko, along with other family members, appear at the palace balcony to welcome tens of thousands of people to the Imperial Palace grounds.

In turn, the monarchy is greeted by their waving visitors with Japanese flags, before they are ushered into the building for a tour of the inner grounds.
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