Insei (院政)

Insei refers to a form of government in which the retired Emperor (Joko), who is the direct ancestor of the current Emperor, directly conducts the affairs of state.
Because the Joko was called 'In,' this form of government is referred to as 'insei.'
The Joko who proclaimed insei was also called chiten-no-kimi (a sovereign who ruled the world).


The term "insei" is used to mean that an emperor or empress abdicates in favor of his or her son or daughter (or grandchild) and then acts as a guardian to the new young emperor or empress. The practice of insei could be seen during the reins of Empress Jito, Empress Gensho, and Emperor Shomu, for example. Because imperial succession was unstable at that time (ohe-sei (大兄制)), it is considered to be a system whereby the Emperor abdicated so as to pass the throne to the prince of his (her) choice.

Even during the Heian period this was seen in Emperor Saga, Emperor Uda, Emperor Enyu, etc. (as described later). Under the system of centralized administration established with the ritsuryo legal codes, the Joko was considered as having authority equivalent to that of the Emperor, so even such an irregular form of government was possible within the framework of the system. Such an Emperor would occasionally participate in governing the nation even after abdication, on the grounds that he, as 'the head of the Imperial Family,' was overseeing the young Emperor. However, the political structure and financial/military support at that time were insufficient to maintain such a situation, and because many Emperors were young and short-lived in the middle of the Heian period, there was no Joko with the energy and health needed to exercise sufficient authority; consequently, this structure by which authority was exercised by the Emperor's father gradually declined and was eventually replaced by a system called Sekkan seiji (摂関政治), in which a member of the Northern House of the Fujiwara clan exercised rights and performed duties in place of the Emperor, became widespread.

However, when Emperor Gosanjo succeeded to the throne in 1068, the situation changed dramatically. Throughout the Heian period, the stabilization of imperial succession was considered to be a major political issue, and in the drive to unite the line of emperors to the descendants of Emperor Ichijo, Emperor Gosanjo succeeded to the throne. Gosanjo was the first Emperor in 170 years whose cognates were not from the Northern House of the Fujiwara clan (Sekkan-ke (摂関家)), and this was another sign that Sekkan seiji, the authority of which was based on the position as being conducted by cognates of the Emperor, was beginning to waver.

Many emperors prior to Emperor Gosanjo also planned and implemented a series of policies called 'new policies,' being intended for establishment of sovereignty and the revival of ritsuryo legal codes, which they enacted immediately after succeeding to the throne; but Emperor Gosanjo conducted active policies, including Enkyu-no Shoen Seiri-rei (an order given in the Enkyu era to consolidate manors) (in 1069), supported by his advantage of not having Sekkan-ke as his cognates. In 1072, Emperor Gosanjo abdicated in favor of his first son, Imperial Prince Sadahito (Emperor Shirakawa), but died immediately thereafter of an illness. Because Jien asserted that Emperor Gosanjo at that time was intent upon initiating insei ("Gukansho"), Chikafusa KITABATAKE ("Jinno-Shoto-ki"), Hakuseki ARAI ("Tokushiyoron"), Katsumi KUROITA, Hiroyuki MIURA, etc., also supported such an assumption; however, there were different views, such as that of Hidematsu WADA, who asserted that the initiation of insei was not intended due to three reasons--disasters/accidents, Gosanjo's illness and Imperial Prince Sanehito's assumption of the position as the Crown Prince--which reasons were limited only to illness by Kiyoshi HIRAIZUMI. In recent years, Shigeki YOSHIMURA has been asserted on the grounds that there was no sharp rise in disasters/accidents at that time, and Gosanjo's illness (assumed to be diabetes) became significantly worse only after his abdication, and that this was intended for the expansion of sovereignty by having Imperial Prince Sanehito, who did not have Sekkan-ke as cognates, succeed to the throne, thereby preventing the return to Sekkan seiji; however, there was no intention to start insei, and consequently such a view has become accepted. There are also such opinions as that of Kei MIKAWA, who considered that the initial purpose of insei was to control the right to decide who would succeed the throne; this view places importance on the fact that the expansion of sovereignty was intended.

On the other hand, the view that insei started before the reign of Emperor Gosanjo has become more prevalent in recent years, since it is increasingly apparent that Emperor Uda conducted virtual insei after he abdicated to Emperor Daigo to become Hoo (法皇) as the result of the new Emperor's illness, and based on the view that Emperor Enyu was opposed to Kaneie FUJIWARA, a regent and his maternal grandfather, since Enyu tried to participate in political affairs after his abdication and succession of the throne by his son, Emperor Ichijo.

Shirakawa Insei

Shirakawa, the Emperor who followed, was related to Sekkan-ke on his mother's side, but he conducted direct government in a manner similar to that of Gosanjo. In 1086, Shirakawa abdicated to Imperial Prince Taruhito (Emperor Horikawa), who was then eight years old; he named himself Shirakawa-in and became Dajo Emperor (Joko), but to oversee the young Emperor he continued the conduct of political affairs. This is generally regarded as the start of insei. When Horikawa died in 1107, his prince (Emperor Toba) succeeded the throne at age four; and Shirakawa succeeded in strengthening insei relative to the era of Horikawa, where some originality in government by the Emperor was seen.
From Shirakawa onward, the jokos who conducted Insei reigned as if they were chiten-no-kimi, being virtual emperors, while the actual emperors were described as being 'as if they were the crown princes.'

In the beginning, Shirakawa did not intend to institute the insei system, but it was established nevertheless. The primary intention of Shirakawa was to stabilize the imperial succession (or the exclusive succession by his own blood). Although his younger brothers, Imperial Prince Sanehito and Imperial Prince Sukehito, were strong candidates for the Imperial succession, he passed the throne to his son Imperial Prince Taruhito, so that his younger brothers (and the nobles supporting them) would give up their hopes for the throne.

Although imperial succession by direct descendants was ideal, a male successor to the throne was not always assured, and at all times there was the risk that the line of succession could be severed. On the other hand, when many princes were candidates to the throne, it meant endless disputes regarding the imperial succession. Under the insei system, as the 'chiten-no-kimi' was able to nominate his immediate and subsequent successors to the throne, a relatively stable Imperial succession was possible; moreover, it was possible to reflect the intention of the 'chiten-no-kimi' in the Imperial succession. This is markedly different from the case of Sekkan seiji, where the intention of Sekkan-ke was strongly reflected in the imperial succession.

Because insei was based on direct paternal rights, contrary to the Sekkan government, whereby the regents/kampakus conducted political affairs through their ties as cognates of the Emperor, insei facilitated a despotic form of government. The jokos who conducted Insei established Incho (院庁) as their own political office and therefore issued written orders such as Inzen (院宣)/In-no-cho Kudashibumi (院庁下文), etc. Earlier theories asserted that political affairs were in fact conducted at Incho, but Shigeo SUZUKI asserted that no details regarding national government could be seen in the documents issued by Incho at that time, and Yoshihiko HASHIMOTO, based on this fact, strongly criticized the view that political affairs were conducted at Incho; consequently, in recent years it has become the prevalent view that the In put pressure on the Imperial Court by using inzen, which had the aspect of a non-official document, and that by placing his aides in positions of general council of state he took virtual control of the government. Such aides of the In succeeded in their careers through their individual relationships as aides serving under the Joko, and thereby increased their power. Also, as the Joko appointed samurai powers, mainly to the Hei-shi clan, such as by establishing the Joko's own military organization, Hokumen-no Bushi (北面の武士), the power of the Hei-shi clan increased. Therefore, in some cases the commencement of Insei by Shirakawa is considered to be the start of the medieval age.

The peak of insei and change

Shirakawa died after placing Toba's first prince (Emperor Sutoku) on the throne, and Toba started to conduct Insei, but Toba turned a cold shoulder to Sutoku and had him succeed the Imperial Throne to Toba's ninth prince, Emperor Konoe (whose mother was FUJIWARA no Nariko) (after Konoe's death, his elder brother, Emperor Goshirakawa, whose mother was FUJIWARA no Shoshi, succeeded to the throne). Subsequently, immediately after Toba died in 1156, war broke out between Sutoku and Goshirakawa, and Goshirakawa won (in the Hogen Rebellion).

Goshirakawa, after abdicating in favor of Emperor Nijo in 1158, established insei. The period of insei by Goshirakawa was the age in which the samurai quickly rose to power, as can be seen in the Heiji Rebellion, the entry and fall of the government by TAIRA no Kiyomori, the occurrence of Jisho Jyuei Rebellion and the establishment of Kamakura Bakufu by MINAMOTO no Yoritomo, etc. After Goshirakawa, his grandson, Emperor Gotoba, conducted insei. Gotoba-in tried to seize the opportunity of the assassination of Shogun MINAMOTO no Sanetomo, seeking to revive the imperial power and overthrow Kamakura Bakufu, but he failed (the Jokyu Rebellion); instead he was banished, and this brought about the weakening of imperial power and intervention in the Imperial Court by the regent Hojo clan. Upon Emperor Gohorikawa's succession to the throne after the rebellion, his father, Imperial Prince Morisada, conducted insei without in fact becoming the Emperor (Gotakakura-in).

Insei continued during and after the Jokyu Rebellion, during which it functioned as the core of a system of government led by the court nobles. Particularly, during the age of Emperor Gosaga, who conducted the first full-scale insei after the rebellion, various systems of insei were organized. Gosaga-in strengthened the function of insei by formalizing the system of delivery, which was a position for the delivery of reports from Benkan (弁官) and Kurodo (蔵人) to the Emperor, and by establishing In-no-hyojo, where the In, together with Hyojo-shu, participated in decision/permission regarding lawsuits.

During the Kenmu Restoration, Emperor Godaigo conducted direct government and insei was discontinued for a certain period, but after a few years insei was revived by Hokucho (北朝) and continued after the start of the Muromachi period; however, when Emperor Gokomatsu died in 1433, insei virtually ended. Consequently, insei has been conducted from time to time since then, but it has been in form only.

Insei in the Edo period

During the Edo period, based on "Kinchu Narabini Kuge Shohatto (禁中並公家諸法度)," Edo Bakufu began to intervene significantly in the Imperial Court, and as a result it became nearly impossible for a member of the Imperial Family to participate in political affairs. The system was established when Emperor Meisho, whose cognates were the Tokugawa clan, succeeded to the throne, but as insei by Emperor Gomizunoo was conducted during the reign of Meisho, Meisho never had actual power in the Imperial Court; instead, the actual power of the court was concentrated in Emperor Gomizunoo. Subsequently, when Emperor Reigen conducted insei, discord arose continually with Edo Bakufu, and the relationship with Edo Bakufu became tense. As a result, Edo Bakufu had no choice but to tolerate the existence of insei. Because insei was outside the legal framework of the Imperial Court from its establishment, it could not be controlled by "Kinchu Narabini Kuge Shohatto"; thus it became apparent that there was a limit to how far the Edo bakufu could control the Imperial Court.

At the end of the Edo period, Emperor Kokaku, who was from Kanin-no-miya (閑院宮), abdicated to his son, Emperor Ninko, and conducted insei, which is currently considered to be the last occurrence of insei.

Insei is virtually prohibited in modern Japan. In Article 10 of the Imperial Household Law (enacted in 1889), it was specified that, 'upon the demise of the Emperor, his heir will succeed to the throne and to the sacred treasures'; this prohibited abdication by the Emperor will still alive, and the succession of the Imperial Throne was therefore only allowed upon the Emperor's death. This resulted in the denial of the existence of a Joko, upon which insei is premised. In the current Imperial Household Law, enacted in 1947 following the defeat in World War II, Article 4 sets forth that, 'upon the death of the Emperor, his heir shall immediately succeed to the throne'; that the position as Emperor is for a lifetime and can only be succeeded upon the Emperor's death. Furthermore, Article 2 set forth the order of succession to the Imperial Throne, and Article 3 set forth with respect to any change in such order; thus it became impossible for the Emperor to name an heir at his own will.

Insei seen from the perspective of world history

The political system where a person who abdicates the throne conducts virtual political affairs is extremely rare as a permanent system in world history, and basically the only similar case is that of the Tran Dynasty of Vietnam.

Insei' in modern Japan

The word "insei" is also used in modern Japan. It is a simile for the condition where, although the head of an organization leaves his position, he still continues to exercise decisive influence over executives. It is often used to describe the status of national government or business management.

In politics, a case where a prime minister has had no choice but to resign due to a scandal, etc., but retains the strongest influence within the ruling party, is referred to as 'insei.'
For example, the Sosuke UNO government and Toshiki KAIFU government, which were established after the resignation of Noboru TAKESHITA, were once referred to as 'Takeshita insei' (although it is not clear whether this is a fact). In modern Japan, 'insei' is used to mean the subject person assumes a position that nominally does not have actual power, primarily for the purpose of exercising virtual power, thereby avoiding legal/moral responsibilities accompanying the exercise of power; it differs in essence from insei in its historical connotation. Also, similar situations in companies or groups are sometimes described as insei, but in such cases the further strengthening of power is sought by deciding on a loyal right-hand man or a relative as one's successor.