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Who was Japan’s first emperor?

As Emperor Akihito is set to abdicate from the Japanese throne, Royal Central has dissected some of the most memorable parts of his reign. Although we pride ourselves on keeping our readers up to date with the current news on royals around the world, we wanted to look back further and answer the question on everyone’s mind: who was Japan’s first ever Emperor?

According to ancient literature, including readings from the Records of Ancient Matters and The Chronicles of Japan, Emperor Jimmu is recorded as the first ruler of Japan. He is celebrated on National Foundation Day on February 11th each year.

Originally observed during the New Year, the Meiji era saw a shift when the country adopted the Gregorian calendar and moved away from the Chinese lunisolar. This public holiday was first introduced in 1873 as ‘Kigensetsu’, 2,532 years after his accession to the throne, but was later suspended from 1948 to 1966 and later reinstated with the new name we all know today.

Detail of Emperor Jinmu – Stories from “Nihonki” (Chronicles of Japan), by Ginko Adachi. By Ginko Adachi (active 1874-1897) – artelino – Japanese Prints – Archive

There are little facts to be known around Jimmu, although extracts from Kojiki, which the oldest extant chronicle in Japan, reports that he was born on 13 February 711 BC as Kamu-yamato Iware-biko No Mikoto. Interestingly, he is thought to be a descendant of the goddess of the sun and universe, Amaterasu while also being distantly related to the storm and sea god, Susanoo. To say that he comes from an impressive family tree would be a huge understatement!

The length of Jimmu’s reign has been debated by many but is traditionally dated from 11 February 660 BC until his death on 9 April 585 BC, aged 126.

Before his succession to the throne, mythic records show that Jimmu and his brothers were born in Takachiho. After discovering that their chances of reigning over the entire country from that town were low, his brothers decided to move eastward through the Seto Inland Sea but were defeated in battle when they reached Ōsaka – resulting in the death of Jimmu’s older brother, Itsuse no Mikoto.

Jimmu came to the realisation that they had been defeated because they decided to battle eastward against the sun. As a result of this, he decided to land on the east side of Kii Peninsula and battle westward.

Upon reaching Kumano with a three-legged raven named Yatagarasu, they moved to Yamato where they won a battle with a regional ruler named Nagasunehiko. Following the defeat, Jimmu met with Nigihayahi no Mikoto, who was previously protected by Nagasunehiko and claimed to be a descendant of the Takamagahara gods where he accepted Jimmu’s legitimacy to rule.

Jimmu then built a palace at Kashihara, which is a city in Nara Prefecture where he was coronated. More recently, Emperor Akihito and his wife, Empress Michiko visited the tomb of Jimmu ahead of his abdication to pay their respects.

It’s impossible to be too clear on whether Jimmu actually existed, but there has always been a bond between the people, the land and the Emperor of Japan.