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  • Writer's pictureTim Odagiri

That Time Some Guy Said, “You’re Not Japan’s Emperor, I Am!”

Battle for the Imperial Throne

You history buffs out there might recall that the mid-1940s was a busy time for Japan. With the empire’s defeat at the end of World War II, the Allied victors were in a position to make sweeping changes to the country’s governance. Perhaps the most monumental was the conversion of the emperor’s status from holy ruler to a constitutionally limited symbol of the state. This effectively reduced the number of activities that would qualify as crimes of lèse-majesté, opening up exciting new opportunities for usurpers and claimants to the throne.

But first, let’s flash back seven centuries to see why monarchical counterclaims were even possible. Things weren’t going too well for the Kamakura shogunate in the early 1300s. The military government had controlled both the nation and its imperial line since 1185, but a slate of poor leadership decisions and two invasion attempts by the Mongols had weakened the government financially and militarily.

Emperor Go-Daigo had seen enough, and in 1331 decided to overthrow the shogunate and return authority to the throne. That attempt got him exiled, but two years later he triumphed over Kamakura and started restoring Japan to its imperial glory. Things were going swimmingly until Ashikaga Takauji, Go-Daigo’s military chief, decided that a new military dictatorship—coincidentally named for and led by Ashikaga—would be so much better than a plain monarchy. This broken friendship split the government into distinct Northern and Southern Courts in 1336. Go-Daigo moved his throne to his new southern base in Yoshino, near Nara, while Ashikaga installed “pretender” Emperor Kōmyō as a rival monarch to the north, in Kyoto.

The two courts worked things out in 1392, with new emperors issuing out of the Northern Court from that point forward. As you might expect, the descendants of Go-Daigo’s Southern Court never fully embraced this new direction. Which brings us to Kumazawa Hiromichi and his attempt to reclaim the southern branch’s authority in 1946. A shopkeeper in Nagoya, Kumazawa’s father supposedly had been ruling Japan in secret since the Meiji era, and the son took over upon his father’s passing in 1920. “Emperor” Kumazawa brought his claim to the attention of General MacArthur’s GHQ, and he was able to produce evidence of direct lineage from Emperor Go-Kameyama, the fourth and final emperor to rule from the Southern Court.

Kumazawa gained a bit of notoriety through positive press coverage, despite his feisty personality. But the GHQ had its heart set on the sitting Emperor Showa. Passage of the Treaty of San Francisco in 1951 officially ended Kumazawa’s efforts, not that he ever really had a chance at the throne. Still, he continued to rule in secret until his “abdication” in 1957, making his son Emperor Sonshin, or so they say. Kumazawa passed away from pancreatic cancer in 1966. He did not receive a state funeral.

Kumazawa was not alone in his quest to recapture the throne. Nearly twenty claimants have come forward over the years to challenge the imperial status quo. Perhaps some were crackpots, but even today there are serious scholars who wonder whether the messiness of the imperial line in the fourteenth century was judiciously resolved. Given that nearly 700 years have passed since that royal fissure, any change back to the southern line seems unlikely. But if MacArthur’s team had been more inclined to embrace the upstart’s story, Japan might have ended up with Emperor Kumazawa.

[Image Credits: Public Domain]


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