Why did the Japanese Emperor tradition survive and not China's?

In 1644, Wu Sangui “opened up” the Great Wall at Shanhai Pass.  The Manchu’s marched through, and one of the Great Dynasties, The Qing, was born.   Indeed, the reign of the Qing brought great territorial expansion to China. Still, the Mighty Qing endured at least 8 major rebellions during its reign, until in 1911 at Wuhan, it finally met a rebellion it could not put down.  A challenge to its authority it did know how to surmount.  It was called the Xinhai Revolution.

It was just as well.  China was dying a slow death under the Qing, and everyone knew it.  The British, indeed all the West.   And most perceptively the Japanese.   One could say the Qing overstayed its welcome in Chinese History.  It left the gas tank on empty.  The cupboard bare.  A guest everyone was happy to see leave.

Meanwhile the Japanese Emperor to this day survives.  Respected, revered, warmly embraced by nearly all Japanese People.  Still visible at least once a year to all willing to make the trip on New Year’s Day to the palace.  Even I’ve seen the Emperor.  (I didn’t wave the small Japanese flag I was given though) While the Imperial Family in Japan has modernized, if one wishes to see a real life Chinese Emperor today, there are plenty of paintings online.  

Is it not ironic how the crueler of the two have survived? Did not the Japanese Emperor approve the invasion of China?   Lord over the Japanese Military’s rampage through Asia?  Were not 20 million Chinese killed as either a direct or indirect result of Japan’s treacherous romp through China?  How many Koreans were killed during Imperial Japan’s occupation?

And yet the Imperial Family is not only loved, but cherished.

Why has one survived and the other not?

No question both imperial families have been brutal throughout time.   Yet one cannot argue with sheer numbers, not when China is involved.   What is 20 million dead when a nation’s population is 500 million?  Mother Russia’s WW2 deaths were just as high.  Yet it’s population only 170 million. 

Even death it seems needs context.

The extinction of the Chinese Royal Family and Emperor tradition was not inevitable with the rise of the Chinese Communist Party.   The Fall of the Qing is due to many things, the Communist Party not being one of them.  One can even argue the vacuum created by the Fall of the Qing indirectly helped lead to the inexorable rise of the CCP.  Still, it is true the Qing Emperor and the Communist Party simply could not coexist.  (Remember, the key to power is controlling the narrative!)   Funny though how an Emperor or King in a democratic society is able to thrive. (Thailand…..Great Britain.)

Meanwhile with Communist governments the Monarchy must go (Russia).

But make no mistake the Qing Emperor Tradition was dead well before anyone had heard of Mao. 

The survival of the Japanese Emperor meanwhile is easy.  Macarthur simply allowed it.  And that was that.  MacArthur turned the other cheek.   That is, after he took a cold, analytical glance at the personal responsibility of the Emperor for WW2, the blood from the Emperor’ hand’s still dripping to the floor, Macarthur took a page out of Hirohito’s book and decided it was best to simply look the other way.   Macarthur’s power was immense.  He had a blank check with Japan.  As well as a signed unconditional surrender document in his pocket.  I believe MacArthur could’ve hanged the Emperor if he wanted.   

Mao in many respects had it quite easy.  Many of his natural rivals, or those with a moral following that gave them the authority to challenge the Communist Narrative simply died off or lost the mandate of heaven before he himself took the throne.   We’re not talking the Qing Emperor, but Lu Xun.   One wonders how Mao would have been able to handle the famous author?   And of Sun Yat Sen?  Could the Communist Party have come to power if Sun Yat Sen was still alive?

MacArthur’s leniency was wise.  It helped cement Japanese American friendship to this day.  Otherwise, America would always have been known as the “emperor killer”.

Another reason for the success of the Japanese Emperor was an astounding track record since the Meiji Restoration of the 1860’s.  Japan took off.  It greatly prospered, and unfortunately on top of that not only correctly perceived China’s weakness but soon came to feel it had its own Manifest Destiny to dominate Asia.   One wonders how many lives it has cost to rid Japan of that notion?

Meanwhile, like the Russians with Stalin, the Japanese believed the Emperor possibly could not be involved with such violence and persecution towards others.   Japan was strong and prosperous.  

Many nations were afraid of Japan. The West may not have “Feared” Japan, but they “respected” Japan and gave it a wide berth.  Again, with geography on its side, Japan successfully kept the greedy West at bay.

The Chinese failed at this, however, and were thus perceived as weak and inferior.  Their ass kicking in the First Sino Japanese war only reinforced the image others had of a so called “nation” unworthy of the name.

The Qing had shown nothing but weakness and corruption.  While Japan became stronger, more confident and assertive, China simply fell apart, the “superiority” of its Confucian scholar class laid bare for all to see.   Cannon and Ambition and a Strong Navy far more powerful than anything the Confucians or Cixi could offer.

This was manifested by the ever presence of the wealth disparity gap.  Many chroniclers of 1930’s Shanghai talk of dead bodies daily being fished out of the Yangtze.  Starvation and opium addiction rampant.  80% of the population landless, held under the thumb of a few.  Meanwhile, Japan first initiated land reform in 1873.   Realizing early on the best way to ease social upheaval is by giving people land. 

One can fairly argue (I have) that the Communist Party was the best thing that ever happened to China from the first Opium War until the terrible 3 year famine took place.   China under Chiang Kai Shek would be more like India today than the China we know.   Want to see how China would have fared?  Look up Ferdinand Marcos.  Enough said.

China has over time succeeded grandly without the “Emperor Tradition”.   Japan, I’m afraid may not fare so well.   The Japanese Emperor is a firm anchor on the identity of being Japanese.   It has taken China a hundred years, from Cixi and Guangxu, to successfully move on.   One wonders how Japan would be able to live without the Emperor….?


  1. The other thing to mention is the difference in actual power of the Emperor in both countries. In Japan, the Emperor was traditionally just a figurehead who would just appoint the Shogun or whoever else was running the country. The Emperor had no real power. The Meiji Period-WW II was strange in Japanese history in regards to the Emperor. After the Emperor WWII the Emperor went back to old role of the 1500 years before. In China the Emperor was at least presented as being all powerful, so he couldn't exist with an all powerful CCP.

  2. Correct on all counts! I think even Hirohito wasn't as powerful as lead to believe. The all powerful Chinese emperor was given the benefit of the doubt for over a hundred years before collapsing. With a weak Emperor, perhaps expectations just aren't that high. Basically just stay out of the newspaper. In my view the Japanese have had a good run of long living benevolent emperors, including Hirohito after WW2. We must not forget though Hirohito still signed off on not only Pearl Harbor, but on the invasion of China as well. The ugly side of Hirohito caused great suffering.


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