Eli5: Why is the Japanese emperor an emperor if Japan is not an empire and doesn’t have a king or multiple Kings below him?

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Eli5: Why is the Japanese emperor an emperor if Japan is not an empire and doesn’t have a king or multiple Kings below him?

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This has a cultural base. The Japanese rulers were believed to be mandated emperors of heaven, and while many cultural differences existed between say, an Egyptian Pharaoh and a Japanese emperor, the deific elements of them being sacred and tied to divine will…those were strikingly similar.

Shoguns and perhaps Daimyos were king equivalents, I suppose, and many would vie for the title of emperor at certain points in earlier historical times.

Shogun by James Clavell is a fiction work that portrays it surprisingly well.

Back when Japan first started having emperors, the whole of Japan *was* the empire. And beneath the emperor were the heads of clans, or Daimyo, which essentially were the kings below the emperor.

The title of the Japanese monarch is “天皇”, which is a translation of the title that the Chinese monarchs used before being overthrown in the twentieth century: “皇帝”. The question is how to translate this title into English.

The most direct translation would probably be “Lord God”: the rulers of China and Japan wanted to be treated not as peers of Cyrus or Caesar but rather as peers of Allah or Zeus. [edit: u/runfromdusk rightly objects below that while this may have been the attitude of the Japanese monarchs, it wasn’t really the attitude of the Chinese ones; there’s a profound difference between a ruler *of* Heaven and a ruler *chosen by* Heaven.] However, to Western ears a human demanding to be thought of as a God sounds (a) blasphemous and idolatrous and (b) ridiculously puffed up. So that translation was unacceptable.

At the time the translation question was being decided, Japan wasn’t really known to the West yet, so the question was what to call the ruler of China. And China plausibly *was* an empire, ruling over many subject peoples with different cultures from one another. It was more reasonable to think of China as a peer of Persia or Rome than to think of it as a peer of Andorra or Scotland. So we decided to translate the title as “Emperor”. When we later discovered that the Japanese monarchs used the same title, we went ahead and started calling them “Emperor”s too.

The Europeans translated the Chinese “皇帝” as Emperor because they ruled a vast land with control over multiple groups of people, held the highest diplomatic/political rank in the region, and was the military and cultural hedgemon of East Asia.

The Japanese title for their monarch is “天皇,” which is essentially a portmanteau of two Chinese Imperial titles, 皇帝 and 天子. The Japanese essentially just borrowed the title from China. They had some fights about it, but China never actually did anything to actually force the Japanese monarch to give up the title, and Japan drifted a bit further out of China’s sphere of influence, so the Chinese stopped pressing the issue in return for the Japanese Emperor’s cooperation to cut down Japanese pirates.

When the Europeans came along, they translated both as Emperor for consistency.

“Emperor” means the exact same thing “king” does. The term “imperator” was coined after the fall of the roman republic because at the time the culture was “never will a rex/king reign on rome”. Thus imperator was a PC way to call what was effectively a king. Kinda like how dictators will call themselves “secretaries” or “presidents” even though we all know they are dictators.

TL;DR an emperor is the same thing as a king.