Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Imperial Regalia: The Holy Treasures of Japan

Being an extremely unique culture it goes without saying that the regalia of the Japanese monarchy is unlike any other on earth. Whereas other monarchies, such as those in the western world, have bejeweled crowns, scepters and orbs in Japan, of course, there is nothing of the sort. There are, obviously, certain very elaborate and traditional robes that are worn at the formal enthronement of a new emperor (which is not exactly a coronation as there is no crown) but the Japanese monarchy has always been distinguished by its near total lack of glamour and finery. By the standards of Europe or, nearer to home, Imperial China, Japanese ceremonies have always been very austere and the palaces of Japanese emperors quite sparse in terms of elaborate decoration. This tradition came about in large part because of the extremely exalted nature of the monarchy. To put it in simple terms, for one so lofty as the Emperor, so high above all others, even the most grandiose displays would be insufficient; therefore none were required. When it comes to the Japanese monarchy, less has always been more and court ceremony is still extremely precise and choreographed but still simple and understated.

When it comes to the Imperial regalia, westerners should not think in terms of fabulously valuable jewels but rather in terms of holy relics; objects which are literally priceless, ancient and which have a spiritual rather than a monetary value attached to them. As the Japanese monarchy is the oldest in the world it is also not surprising that the Imperial regalia of Japan is the most ancient as well, having been in the possession of the Japanese Imperial Family for over a thousand years, longer than most any other monarchy in the world has even existed. The basic Imperial regalia, what westerners would call “Crown jewels” in their own countries, are finally only three specific items and these three items are about as mysterious as they are ancient. It is no exaggeration at all to say that these three pieces of Imperial regalia are absolutely THE most sacred and revered objects in all of Japanese history. In fact, they are held so precious that they are almost never in the same place at one time. In fact, they are kept under close guard in the strictest of secrecy, hidden in shrines far away from each other in diverse parts of Japan and are only brought together for the enthronement ceremonies of a new Emperor. In fact, they are kept in such strict and reverent isolation that, at various times, some people have wondered if they actually even exist. The level of spiritual significance attached to these items is so great that they have never been sketched or photographed and only a very select few of the highest Shinto priests and the Emperor himself have ever even seen them.

Speculative images of the Imperial regalia
The Imperial regalia consists of the Sword (Kusanagi), formerly the Ame no Murakumo or “Sword of the Gathering Clouds of Heaven” but today referred to as the “grass-cutting sword”. According to tradition it was taken from the body of an eight-headed dragon. Many believe the Sword to be kept at Atsuta Shrine in Nagoya but, of course, that has never been confirmed. There is the Mirror (Yata) or “Eight Hand Mirror” which was rebuilt from the ashes of the original after it was destroyed around a thousand years ago. It is commonly held to be kept at the Grand Shrine of Ise in Mie but, that too is unconfirmed. And there is the Great Jewel (Yasakani) which is believed to be a bead shaped rather like a comma known as a magatama and is possibly the most precious of all the regalia as it is believed to be the only one that has survived completely intact and unchanged over the millennia. The most common story for its location is the Imperial Palace in Tokyo but, again, that is unconfirmed. The sacred nature of the regalia comes from their legendary origins. According to tradition the Holy Treasures represent the sun goddess Amaterasu and were brought to earth by her grandson Ninigi-no-Mikoto, father of the Japanese Imperial Family to use their divine powers in pacifying the country. Since then, holding these Holy Treasures has been the “proof” that the Imperial Family are of divine descent and the only ones who can legitimately rule Japan.

The Great Shrine of Ise -and that is as close as you get
Each piece of the regalia is also associated with one of the three great virtues; the Great Jewel with benevolence, the Mirror with wisdom and the Sword with courage. Some have also alluded to them having a cosmic symbolism with the Great Jewel representing the moon, the Mirror the sun and the Sword the stars. However, the most important thing is their representation of the sun goddess and the “divine right” (to use a western phrase) of the Japanese Imperial line which has held firm over all of these thousands of years. They are certainly the most secretive, mysterious and highly revered symbols of monarchy in the world. Their sacred nature has been closely guarded to the present day with quite a scare coming in the dark days of the end of World War II when an Allied invasion seemed imminent. A special order was later found in which His Majesty the Showa Emperor instructed his Lord Keeper of the Privy Seal to take any measures necessary to protect the Holy Treasures and ensure that they were never defiled by the eyes or hands of a foreign invader. From what can be gathered, they would certainly be the most unprepossessing “crown jewels” in the world. In fact, to those unaware they would likely appear to be nothing more than worthless antiques. Yet, because of their age and origins, they are in fact so sacred as to be priceless with probably less than a handful of people by now in the world who have ever even seen them.


  1. Replies
    1. The Imperial Regalia of Japan is real, the objects were used during the enthronement ceremony of Emperor Akihito in 1990. You can watch it on YouTube.

      (Skip to 41:00 mins, those boxes behind Emperor Akihito contain the Imperial Regalia of Japan).

  2. More than a few scholars and experts have questioned the appropriateness of the word "Emperor" or "Monarchy", and you kind of hit on that point sometimes by referring to the deep spirituality.
    Many believe they're more equivalent to a High Shaman or High Priest, closer to a Pope or Dalai Lama. And indeed the two least controversial items of the regalia are highly linked to Asian Shamanism: the mirror and the magatama. The sword (which has many stories of either being lost or stolen and nobody has ever seen) is the only one with a connection to wielding worldly power.
    The historical reality is that the "imperial" family has very rarely held secular power. Their job description is also overwhelmingly concerned with religious ceremonies. And this is exactly why they've survived for so long. There's been countless power struggles and changes of power, but there's no point in killing the High Priest of Shinto.
    Some have married their daughters and controlled the country as in-Laws. Archaeologists believe this is why the capital changed so often in the Kofun period (reflecting shifts of power to other clans). It's demonstrably what the Soga and Fujiwara did from the 6th century through the 12th. The 5 Fujiwara branches still had a stranglehold on marriage to the imperial family in the 19th century. This was even true going to ancient history, as the Chinese record a ruler often called Princess Himiko ... then proceeds to clarify that her brother actually handles all secular affairs. While the Kojiki and Nihon Shoki are rather silent on Himiko (most believe Jingu is an attempt to incorporate Himiko), it's not by coincidence that this pattern remains to be the case throughout Japanese History. The face of the country, the ruler-in-name, is consistently a mere religious figurehead while others do the actual business of governance behind the curtain.
    The first shogunate at the end of the 12th century created a new layer on top of the in-law Regents. They ruled "in the name" of the High Priest (and their Regent), but really the "monarch" was under their thumb. Ironically as soon as the first shogun, Yoritomo, died - his sons were subjected to the same tradition of being controlled by their maternal grandfather. You have the Hojo Regent controlling the Shogun who ostensibly claims to rule in the name of the High Priest, who themselves is controlled by the Fujiwara Regent. What a mess! The story of "shogun" Sanetomo writing poetry with "emperor" Juntoku, while neither of them had an ounce of power, is the epitome of Japanese History as it pertains to Sovereigns and Monarchy. There is always another man behind the curtain!

    By the Sengoku Civil War, the Shinto High Priest was actually homeless and at one point a new emperor didn't even have the means to give his father a proper burial or conduct a proper enthronement ceremony. Yet at no point was their life in danger... there's no point killing them because they have no actual power. Any murderer would only be vilified for killing a harmless religious leader.
    This is the real reason the ceremonies are "austere". Usually grandiose ceremonies are meant to put a ruler-to-be's power on display for all to see. But if you have no power, if you have no pretense to power, if you're just a glorified religious cleric... there's no need to be grandiose. And if your family has a history of going through financial ruin, you can't afford one either.


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