DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-G102-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved August 17, 2019, from

5. The imperial institution

The mythology of Shintō proclaims that the sun goddess Amaterasu mandated her grandson – his name was Ninigi – to descend to Japan and establish a dynasty to rule the country eternally (although the actual dynastic founder and first emperor was Ninigi’s grandson, Jimmu). In any case, belief that Japan would be ruled forever by a single royal line became one of the most powerful myths in Japanese history, a myth that retained its potency as a tool of rule until it was shattered by Japan’s catastrophic defeat in the Second World War. Although through most of Japanese history the emperor has in fact functioned more as a ‘sacred legitimizer’ than an actual ruler (he has reigned rather than ruled), he, more than any other person or thing, has through the centuries symbolized ‘Japan’.

The significance of the imperial institution to Japan and the Japanese was given important new definition during the Shintō revival in the early medieval period. Following upon the assertion that the kami of Shintō, rather than the deities of Buddhism, provided protection for the state at the highest level, the fourteenth-century courtier Kitabatake Chikafusa declared in the opening lines of his history of Japan, Jinnō Shōtōki (Chronicle of the Direct Descent of Gods and Sovereigns):

Great Japan is the divine land. The heavenly progenitor founded it, and the sun goddess bequeathed it to her descendants to rule eternally. Only in our country is this true; there are no similar examples in other countries. This is why our country is called the divine land.

(Varley 1980: 49)

Here Japan is extolled as a country superior to others because it has been ‘ruled’ from its founding by an unbroken dynastic line of sovereigns. As Chikafusa observed, other countries– such as India and China – have often been without sovereigns or have suffered frequent dynastic changes. The belief in the superiority of Japan and the Japanese centred on Japan’s ‘unique’ imperial institution, implicit in Chikafusa’s declaration, was sustained into the modern age, becoming the core of the kokutai (national polity) ideology that was officially promoted by Japanese governments until the end of the Second World War (see Sovereignty).

Citing this article:
Varley, Paul. The imperial institution. Shintō, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-G102-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2019 Routledge.

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