Japan’s Early Female Emperors
By E. Patricia Tsurumi
Historical Reflections, Vol. 8:1 (1981)
Introduction: According to conventional Japanese chronology, the time between Suiko’s accession in 592 and Shotoku’s death in 770 is divided into sixteen reigns, half of which featured female emperors. Since two of these women reigned twice, returning to the throne after abdication to rule under different reign-names than before, these eight sovereigns in reality numbered six individuals. For at least two centuries scholars-mostly Japanese although in recent times they have been joined by Westerners – have studied the lives and careers of these six, along with the early male emperors, Because even the most intelligent use of these chronicles as primary sources for historical research is full of problems, the historians’ studies have been enlivened by a variety of controversial interpretations.
Although troublesome gaps in their comprehension of pre-ninth century Japan do exist and approaches to these do vary, specialists in ancient Japanese history probably know as much about most of these six women as they know about their male counterparts. What have they told us about these early female emperors who reigned eight times, occupying the throne throughout approximately half of the 178 years between 592 and 770?