Emperor Reigen

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Emperor Reigen (9 July 1654 - 24 September 1732), was the 112th emperor of Japan according to the traditional count. He reigned as emperor from 5 March 1663 until he abdicated the throne in favour of his son, Emperor Higashiyama on 2 May 1687.


Emperor Reigen
Japanese name
Kanji 霊元天皇

During his life, in accordance with Japanese custom, the emperor's personal name would never have been used. He would have been referred to only as "His Majesty the Emperor" (天皇陛下 Tennō Heika), but the title could be shortened to Heika (陛下 "Your Majesty").

No official posthumous name was assigned to the Emperor at the time of his death, as he had withdrawn to a monastery, adopting the name Sojō (素浄). It was not until the Meiji era that scholars assigned his definitive posthumous name, using a portmanteau of the kanji of two previous Emperors, namely Emperor Kōrei (孝霊) (290 - 215 BC) and Emperor Kōgen (孝元) (214 - 158 BC).

Early life

Emperor Reigen was born on 9 July 1654, as Imperial Prince Satohito (識仁), the sixteenth son of the Emperor Go-Mizunoo and the Lady-in-Waiting Fujiwara Kuniko (藤原国子). Go-Mizunoo was the 108th Emperor and Prince Satohito was only born after his father had abdicated the throne.

Following the forced abdication of his father in 1629, four of Emperor Go-Mizunoo's children had subsequently ascended to the Chrysanthemum Throne. Empress Meishō, who was aged just 5 when Go-Mizunoo appointed her as his successor, abdicated in favour of her younger brother, Emperor Go-Kōmyō in 1643. Go-Kōmyō, who only had a daughter, then formally adopted Prince Satohito, his half-brother, making him the heir-apparent. However, when he passed away in 1654, Satohito was too young to assume the throne. His elder brother, Emperor Go-Sai, ruled temporarily, abdicating on the 26th day of the 1st month of 1663 and 10-year old Satohito became Emperor.

His Reign

Reigen married Takatsukasa Fusako (鷹司房子) (1653-1712), who was to become the Dowager Empress Shin-jyōsai (新上西門院). He fathered a total of 32 children (18 sons and 14 daughters) with the Empress; the Ladies-in-Waiting Bōjō Fusako (1652-1676), Ogura Saneoki no Otome and Matsuki Muneko (1658-1732) - who was Emperor Higashiyama's mother and later Dowager Empress Keihō (敬法門院); the consorts Nishi-no-tōin Tokinaga no Otome, Gojyō Tsuneko, Irie Itsuko, Kurahashi Yasusada no Otome, Matsumuro Atsuko, Matsumuro Nakako and Sutohata Kyoko no Otome; as well as a number of handmaidens.

His two eldest sons, who could have succeeded him as Emperor, renounced the imperial lifestyle and became Buddhist monks.

In 1669, Reigen instigated the first systematisation of the Shintō religion since the Muromachi period. At his request, the priest Masataka Ō wrote the texts entitled Ise sanka no godenju (the praise of scripture) and Kagami gohai gosōden no koto (The facts of the method of mirror worship).[1] The latter explained the virtue of the sacred mirror. Masataka Ō argued that the essence of the mirror is the original enlightened state (naishō) of the kami; it consists in the fact that nothing accumulates in the mind yet the mind is not completely void. This concept lies at the basis of what was later organized as Hakke Shintō.

He was a noted scholar and earned renown for his skill at tanka poetry, calligraphy and painting and in his role as Retired Emperor (Jōkō 上皇) visited the Shugakuin Imperial Villa a total of 21 times, later immortalising this in a collected series of poems and drawings, still in print today. In addition, the Arisu-gawa calligraphy style was derived from the Emperor's penmanship.

A deeply religious man, he is referred to as the "Cloistered Emperor", leaving all affairs of state to the Shōgunate and the management of the Imperial household his advisers. However, the Shōgunate took advantage of this to ensure that the Emperor remained cloistered, by controlling the chief adviser to the Emperor and thus running the imperial household by proxy. Via this route, they promulgated the "Laws Governing the Imperial Court Nobility" which specifically set out what a retired Emperor could and couldn't do. However, these Laws were immediately circumvented by Reigen following his abdication, as he continued to hold the Imperial reigns, on the pretext that he would rule as Jōkō until his son came of age. This led to a worsening of relations between the Imperial palace and the Tokugawa Shōgunate, which only improved once Emperor Higashiyama took over the reigns of power himself. Following Higashiyama's death at an early age, Reigen was once again torn away from his beloved studies, to rule as Jōkō, until the infant Emperor Nakamikado came of age.

In 1713, wanting to devote himself fully to his studies and religion, he shaved his head, and - as his eldest sons had done before him - retreated to a monastery, taking on the name Sojō (素浄), meaning "pure and unadorned". He remained there until his death in 1732, at the age of 78.

Eras of the Emperor's Reign

Emperor Reigen's reign spanned four different eras (年号 nengō). It was only with the commencement of Emperor Meiji's reign that the system of "one reign, one era" (一世一元 issei-ichigen) came into use, meaning that era names would only change with Imperial succession.


Kanbun nengō (寛文年号) spanned the years from 1661 through 1673, with Kanbun gannen (寛文元年, "first year of Kanbun") being declared on the on the fourth day of the 25th month of 1661 (Manji 4) - the dates are as per the soon to be outdated Senmyo-Reki calendar in use at the time, to commemorate numerous disasters, including a fire at the Imperial Palace. The name means "Generous Art".

Events during the Era

  • Kanbun 2, (1st day of the 2nd month 1662) - A violent earthquake shakes Kyōto (then called Heian-kyō, meaning "the tranquillity and peace capital"). The Toyokuni Shrine, tomb of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the man credited with unifying Japan, is destroyed.
  • Kanbun 3, (26th day of the 1st month 1663) - Emperor Go-sai abdicates the throne in favour of his younger brother, 10-year old Satohito, who becomes Emperor Reigen. Go-sai lived quietly in retirement until his death.
  • Kanbun 5, (6th month 1665) - Courts of inquiry, charged with establishing the faith of the population, are created in all the villages of the Empire. Their aim is to root out and eradicate any remaining traces of Christianity in Edo-era Japan.


Enpō nengō (延宝年号) spanned the years from 1673 through 1681, with Enpō gannen (延宝元年, "first year of Enpō") being declared on the ninth day of the 13th month of 1673 (Kanbun 14), to commemorate the Great Kyōto Fire. The name means "Prolonged Wealth".

Events during the Era

  • Enpō 1 (1673) - A great fire devastates Kyōto.
  • Enpō 1 (1673) - Mitsui Takatoshi opens a dry goods store in Edo, laying the foundation for what is today the Mitsui Group, one of the largest corporate conglomerates in Japan.
  • Enpō 3 (1675) - Another devastating fire burns Kyōto.
  • Enpō 3 (1675) - The Bonin Islands (Ogasawara Islands), discovered by accident during Kanbun 10, are claimed as a territory of Japan.
  • Enpō 8, (8th day of the 3rd month 1680) - The fourth Shōgun, Tokugawa Ietsuna, dies and is succeeded by Tokugawa Tsunayoshi.


Tenna nengō (天和年号) spanned the years from 1681 through 1684, with Tenna gannen (天和元年, "first year of Jōkyō") being declared on the 29th day of the 9th month of 1681 (Enpō 9), to commemorate the 58th year of the cycle of the Chinese zodiac. The name means "Heavenly Imperial Peace".

Events during the Era

  • Tenna 1 (1681) - Tokugawa Tsunayoshi in invested as the fifth shogun.
  • Tenna 1 (28th day of the 12th month 1681) - The Great Tenna Fire breaks out in Edo, lasting for 45 days. It is started as an act of arson by the 14-year old Yaoya Oshichi, in an attempt to meet a man she had fallen in love with whilst sheltering at the Shōsen-in temple during a previous fire.
  • Tenna 3 (3 March 1683): Yaoya Oshichi is burned at the stake for arson.
  • Tenna 3 (1683) - Tokugawa shogunate grants permission for Mitsui money exchanges (ryōgaeten) to be established in Edo.


Jōkyō nengō (貞享年号) spanned the years from 1684 through 1688, with Jōkyō gannen (貞享元年, "first year of Jōkyō") being declared on the 21st day of the 2nd month of 1684 (Tenna 4), to commemorate the beginning of a new cycle of the Chinese zodiac. The name means "Prosperous Eternity".

Events during the Era

  • Jōkyō 2 (1685) - The Senmyo-Reki (宣明暦) calendar, which has been in use since it was introduced from China in 862, is replaced by the Jōkyō calendar (暦の貞享 Koyomi no Jōkyō, devised by Shibukawa Harumi.[2]


  • Imperial Household Ministry Department of Official Documents: Emperor Reigen; Shobo; 2005; ISBN 4843320315 (宮内省図書寮 編『霊元天皇実録』1~3巻(ゆまに書房、2005年) ISBN 4843320315)
  • Totman, Conrad D.; Early Modern Japan; University of California Press; 1995; ISBN 0520203569
  • Hall, John Whitney; The Cambridge History of Japan, v4: "Early Modern Japan."; Cambridge University Press; 1988
  • Takako Kubo; Development of the Imperial Court in the Modernized World; Iwata modern history study series; 1998; ISBN 4872941152 (久保貴子『近世の朝廷運営 朝幕関係の展開』(岩田書院近世史研究叢書、1998年) ISBN 4872941152)
  • Ponsonby-Fane, Richard A.B.; The Imperial House of Japan; Ponsonby Memorial Society; 1959.
  • Kazuo Yamaguchi; Reigen - Rule of a Retired Emperor; Iwata modern history study series; 1998; ISBN 4872941209 (山口和夫 「霊元院政について」岩田書院、1998年) ISBN 4872941209)