Photo/IllutrationA broadcast of the "kenjito shokei no gi" on Jan. 7, 1989, with the new emperor and new crown prince in attendance (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

  • Photo/Illustraion

Japan's new emperor will inherit the Imperial Regalia at one of a series of ceremonies related to Emperor Akihito’s fast-approaching abdication of the Chrysanthemum Throne.

The significance placed on some of the items included in the traditional properties that symbolize the emperor’s position may strike some as unusual, particularly the sword.

Here’s a close look at how the “Three Sacred Treasures” that make up the regalia came to be and the roles they have played since ancient times.


Akihito's eldest son, Crown Prince Naruhito, will receive the Imperial Regalia consisting of the sword, “magatama” (comma-shaped beads) and other items during the "kenjito shokei no gi" on May 1. The government says, based on the Imperial Household Economy Law, these are non-religious “time-honored objects that ought to be passed along with the imperial throne.”

However, the old Imperial House Law, enacted in the Meiji Era (1868-1912), stipulated that the regalia were “ancestral sacred objects” that had been passed down through the generations of the imperial family, making no effort to conceal their religious connection.

Still, why include a sword, when the original purpose of the weapon is to kill and injure people?

Metal weapons were introduced to Japan from the Chinese continent during the Yayoi Pottery Culture period (300 B.C.-A.D. 300). First came copper swords and spears, then iron blades.

“Weapons made from metal, which didn’t exist in the Jomon Pottery Culture (c. 14,500 B.C.-1,000 B.C.), could instantly decapitate human bodies. I think ancient people were shocked at the sight. They must have felt a divine presence behind the spectacle,” said Mamoru Saso, a professor at Kokugakuin University specializing in religious archaeology.

Swords were later associated with authority under the rule of the Yamato imperial court, Saso said. During the formation of the nation, the Yamato imperial court distributed swords obtained from China to leaders in each region. The weapons became important items for creating political clout. When the swords were melded with politics, they took on even more of an aura of a “divine nature,” he added.

An entry in the “Kojiki” (Records of Ancient Matters) dating from the eighth century describes how a god of war gave Emperor Jinmu, thought to be Japan's first emperor, a sword called “Futsu-no-mitama.” The sword itself was considered a god and was enshrined at Isonokamijingu shrine in Nara Prefecture.

In a scene in the chronicles portraying “Tenson Korin” (heavenly descent), a magatama and a mirror are introduced along with a sword--the so-called Three Sacred Treasures. The sun goddess Amaterasu-omikami orders that the mirror should be enshrined as her soul.


The regalia, passed down through the imperial line, acquired increased dramatic significance during the closing days of World War II.

Koichi Kido, Lord Keeper of the Privy Seal, wrote in his diary dated July 25, 1945, that if the regalia were lost, “we wouldn’t be able to safeguard and maintain the imperial household and ‘kokutai’ (national polity).”

According to Teruomi Yamaguchi, an associate professor at the University of Tokyo specializing in modern Japanese history, debates over the nature of kokutai entered a new phase after the Public Security Preservation Law was enacted in 1925.

But as Japan’s defeat began to seem certain, a consensus emerged that kokutai's core consisted of a “monarchy headed by the emperor of the unbroken imperial lineage,” which needed to be safeguarded and maintained, and the regalia became the symbol of that system.

“Kokutai was boiled down to that,” Yamaguchi said. Kido’s diary supports this idea.

“On top of the imperial bloodline, the regalia show the legitimacy of the emperor in a visible manner. And the inheritance (of the regalia) makes it possible to imagine the continuity of the unbroken imperial lineage,” said Yamaguchi. “Emperor Showa (Hirohito) himself might have felt the same way.”

Half a month before Japan’s defeat, Kido mentions in his diary these words uttered by Hirohito about the mirror enshrined at Ise Jingu in Ise, Mie Prefecture, and the sword located at Atsutajingu shrine in Nagoya: “After all, I think it is best to bring the sacred treasures at the Ise and Atsuta shrines to a place near me to protect them ... If anything should happen, I think I have no choice but to protect them myself and share the destiny.”

From this it can be interpreted that Hirohito, believed to be the nation's 124th emperor, was determined to defend the regalia from enemies even at the risk of his own life.

“I had the impression he cornered himself to the point that he would fulfill minimum obligations so as not to let others say he caused kokutai's collapse,” Yamaguchi said.

According to a bulletin published by the National Archives of Japan, detailing a “behind-the-scenes story concerning the end of the war,” a draft of the Imperial Rescript announcing the end of war to the Japanese people contained the words, “I dedicate the sacred treasures and I am with you, loyal subjects.” It sounds as if Hirohito was feeling a sense of relief for having protected the regalia.

However, the final version was modified to read: “Having been able to safeguard and maintain kokutai ...”

Thus, the war was brought to an end.

“Emperor Showa thought hard about the role of the emperor in wartime,” Yamaguchi continued. “The current emperor succeeded the legacy and must have directed the same question at himself. One of the answers might have been the imperial court rituals, which are closely associated with the regalia.”