Emperor of Japan - Addressing and Naming

Addressing and Naming

There are two Japanese words equivalent to the English word "emperor": tennō (天皇, lit. "heavenly sovereign"), which is used exclusively to refer to an emperor of Japan, and kōtei (皇帝, the title used for Chinese emperors), which is used primarily to describe non-Japanese emperors. Sumeramikoto (lit. "the Imperial person") was also used in Old Japanese. The term tennō was used by the emperors up until the Middle Ages; then, following a period of disuse, it was used again from the 19th century. In English, the term mikado (御門 or 帝 or みかど), literally meaning "the honorable gate" (i.e. the gate of the imperial place, which indicates the person who lives in and possesses the place), was once used (as in The Mikado, a 19th century operetta), but this term is now obsolete. (Compare Sublime Porte, an old term for the Ottoman government.)

Traditionally, the Japanese considered it disrespectful to call any person by his given name, and more so for a person of noble rank. This convention is more relaxed in modern age and now it is acceptable among friends to use the given name, but use of the family name is still common. In the case of the imperial family, it is still considered inappropriate to use the given name. Since Emperor Meiji, it has been customary to have one era per emperor and to rename each emperor after his death using the name of the era over which he presided, plus the word Tennō. Prior to Emperor Meiji, the names of the eras were changed more frequently, and the posthumous names of the emperors were chosen in a different manner.

Outside of Japan, beginning with Emperor Shōwa, the emperors are often referred to by their given names, both whilst alive and posthumously. For example, the previous emperor is usually called Hirohito in English, although he was never referred to as Hirohito in Japan, and was renamed Shōwa Tennō after his death, which is the only name that Japanese speakers currently use when referring to him.

The current emperor on the throne is typically referred to by the title Tennō Heika (天皇陛下, literally "His Majesty the heavenly sovereign") or Kinjō Heika (今上陛下, literally "his current majesty") or simply Tennō when speaking Japanese. Other terms used to refer to the emperor in Japanese include Heika and Okami, but these are much less typical than Tennō Heika or Kinjō Heika in ordinary conversation. The current Emperor will be renamed Heisei Tennō (平成天皇) after his death and will then be referred to exclusively by that name in Japanese. Non-Japanese speakers typically refer to him now as Akihito, or "Emperor Akihito", and will almost certainly continue to do so after his death. It is considered a major faux pas to refer to a living emperor by his posthumous name, though.

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