On 30th April, the present Emperor, Akihito, will abdicate in favor of his son, Naruhito. This brings to mind an issue that is of more than merely linguistic importance.
Since Japan opened up to the Western World in the 19th century, Japan’s rulers have been styled Emperors of Japan. That is true for the period before 1945 as well as after.
Why has the term Tenno, as he is styled in Japanese, been translated to mean “Emperor”? “King” would be much more appropriate. This is in no way meant to be degrading – on the contrary.
The European tradition
In the European tradition, which is firmly rooted in ancient Mediterranean history, a king is a spiritual and temporal leader. The Pharaohs of ancient Egypt, kings in the truest possible sense of the word, saw themselves as intermediaries between the Gods and their own subjects.
So did King David, the archetype of Christian kings, who saw himself as mediator between God himself and his chosen people. It was for this reason that he was anointed. This was a much more important part of his enthronement than the coronation, which meant no more than investing him with the token of his temporal rule.
An emperor was a much more temporal figure altogether. The first ever emperor (Imperator), Augustus, declined being made a king, seeing himself primarily as a leader in battle, as did his successors.
King of Kings
As Emperor, he was by no means a “King of Kings.” His title did not and does not depend on him being above several kings. And if he did aspire to a spiritual position, he had to take it on separately.
Augustus and his successors styled themselves “pontifex maximus” — supreme bridge-builder, literally. But this was an added title and function and not inherent with that of Imperator Augustus. (The emperors of the Holy Roman Empire were always first installed as kings before assuming the added, and not superior, office of emperor).
Kings deduced a very special position from this particular title and from the anointing ceremony. Right up to the 19th century, kings believed they had the power to heal scrufulosis by touching people. Since the 18th century, other kings did away with that and indeed with the anointment.
Queen Elizabeth was anointed in 1953, and we can expect the Prince of Wales to be anointed when he succeeds to the throne.
The ruler sent from heaven
Tenno means “the ruler sent from heaven” which is very much the same idea, and indeed the new Emperor will be elevated to the throne in an entirely religious ceremony, the constitutional separation of church and state notwithstanding.
So why was his ancestor styled an emperor? Probably, it was a basic misunderstanding on the part of the Japanese, paired with colonialist arrogance on the European side.
It may well be that the Japanese court officials who had learnt about emperors and kings in Europe and were trying to adopt similar dignities may have believed an emperor to be one grade up from a king and that this would thus be the proper title for the Tenno. If they did, they were wrong.
On the other hand, history-conscious Europeans may well have thought that the title of king was reserved for a Christian monarch who would see himself in the tradition of King David, and indeed of Christ himself who had answered Pontius Pilate’s question in the affirmative.
In the same vein, the ruler of Persia, the Shah, a Shiite Muslim, was also styled an emperor, as was the ruler of Ethiopia, who although indeed a Christian, was not thought of as a member of European royalty.
What actually happened here was that they were accorded an inferior title to that of a king. It was only later that oriental rulers, notably the King of Siam (today’s Thailand), were recognized as kings – as indeed they are in the original sense of the word, by their own peoples.
Our 19th century forebears were not the only ones to get things wrong. Occasionally, very occasionally, an emperor was indeed anointed, while the Emperors of Constantinople in particular gradually assumed the title of Basileos, King, on top of that of Imperator.
Obviously, the new Tenno will still be known as the Emperor of Japan, while Europeans and Americans will continue to wonder how an ancient religious ceremony that includes the new Monarch inspecting symbols of his rank that no one except his father and a few very select Shinto dignitaries have seen, can persist in the 21st century.
It is not for us to infringe on traditions rooted in cultures outside our own. In the global village, we might well recognize that they are not so very different from ours, even if we may have discarded some of them.
The abdication of Emperor Akihito of Japan causes us to rethink the nature of his rule.
Japanese court officials may have believed an emperor to be above a king and that this would thus be the proper title for the Tenno. If they did, they were wrong.
History-conscious Europeans may well have thought that the title of king was reserved for a Christian monarch.
It is not for us to infringe on traditions of other cultures. In the global village, we might well recognize that they are not so different from ours.