Thanks to HBO’s Game of Thrones, and its centre point – the fight for the Iron Throne, there seems to be a renewed interest in thrones. Away from the world of fantasy and fiction, we have just witnessed the well-publicised passage of the throne in the oldest surviving monarchy in the world – the Empire of Japan. Far removed from Westeros and intrigue (at least in modern times), let’s take a look at the Chrysanthemum Throne, what it is, and why this real-life transition is so important.
First and foremost, it’s worth noting that the Chrysanthemum Throne isn’t an actual throne, at least not in the physical sense of being a throne where a monarch would sit. Much in the same way that we say “Washington”, “Westminster”, or “the Kremlin” to refer to the United States, United Kingdom, or Russia, the Chrysanthemum Throne is a metonym for the Japanese Emperor.
The term “chrysanthemum” is meant as a reference to the Imperial Seal of Japan and to the royal family. In a broader sense, this is an example of a kamon, which, much like a Western heraldic coat of arms, is meant to identify members of a certain family. As for what factors caused the chrysanthemum specifically to be used to identify the imperial family, this comes from the fusion of 2 beliefs: to the ancient Chinese, who first brought chrysanthemums to Japan in the 5th century, it symbolized longevity, and, to the Japanese, the plant soon became known as the noblest of all flowers.
Rightly so, especially for something defining longevity, it took time for this combined symbolism to be applied to the imperial family: the first recorded usage of the chrysanthemum pattern by the imperial family dates to the 82 emperor of Japan, Emperor Go-Toba (後鳥羽天皇), who reigned from 1183 to 1198.
Outside of the flower usage, what about the throne itself? Even though the Chrysanthemum Throne doesn’t exist in the physical sense, this doesn’t mean that there isn’t technically a “throne”. If there were to be an actual physical throne that could be considered the Japanese imperial throne, it would likely be the oldest surviving throne, which is used during the accession (or literally enthronement) ceremony. Located in the Kyoto Imperial Palace and separated from the rest of the room by a curtain, the Takamikura (高御座) sits 16 feet above the floor atop an octagonal platform, with a sliding door adorned with Heian period paintings of 32 celestial saints to hide the Emperor from sight.
Aside from consideration for a static throne, the transferring of imperial authority involves change as well as some time-honoured ceremonial tradition. For example, the change in emperor also means a change in era: Japan has moved from the Heisei era, which correlates with the reign of Akihito, to the Reiwa era correlating with the reign of his son, the current Emperor Naruhito. Contrarily, any succession ceremony involves Japan’s 3 imperial treasures, which – being so sacred that even the emperor has never seen them – are kept in hidden boxes and consist of: Yata no Kagami, the eight-sided mirror- representing wisdom – from the Ise Grand Shrine in Mie prefecture; Kusanagi no Tsurugi, the sacred “grass-cutting” sword – representing valor and bravery – from the Atsuta Shrine in Aichi prefecture; and Yasakani no Magatama, the sacred curved green jade jewel- representing benevolence – kept in the Imperial Palace in Tokyo.