Empress Jitō

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Hear about Empress Jitō on Episodes 70 and 71 of our Podcast, the Japan Archives.

Empress Jitō
Artistic rendering of Empress Jitō

Empress Jitō

Empress Jitō (持統天皇) was the 41st Emperor of Japan, living from 645-702, and ruling from 686-6973. Originally her name was Princess Uno with her husband being the previous Emperor Tenmu. She was the mother of Prince Kusakabe with her half-sister being Empress Genmei. She was the grandmother of Emperor Monmu.1 Her father was Emperor Tenji3.

During her husbands Reign

Whilst her husband Tenmu reigned, Jitō was a political activist, the Nihongi stating she ‘followed the Emperor in pacifying the Empire.’

In the first year of Tenmu’s reign she ‘followed the Emperor when he took refuge in the Eastern provinces. She addressed the troops and mingled in the throng, until at length they together formed a plan by which several tens of thousands of fearless men were separately ordered to take up their posts in all the most defensible positions.’

Tenmu for 14 years left the position of Great Minister vacant as he and Jitō governed jointly with a team of Imperial Princes, making decisions with them and without consulting the Council of Nobles.

In 681 he decrees an edict for a creation of law-codes, the Asuka no Kyomihara Ritsuryō. During this he and his wife sat in the same seats befitting those of equal status.

Reign of Empress Jitō

After her husband`s death she does not initially install herself as Emperor, merely taking over his functions. She disposes of Prince Ōtsu, seeing him as a obstacle for her sons ascension.1

In AD689 she is known to have given instructions for 1 in 4 men to be trained as soldiers, which would denote the first instance of military conscription for Japan.2

Sadly, Prince Kusakabe dies in 689 and so she finishes the Asuka Kyomihara Ryō and is formally enthroned in 690 as Empress Jitō. She rules for several years and abdicates for her grandson Emperor Monmu wishing to see her grand-son ascend to the throne.

After Abdication

Jitō remained important in political affairs after her abdication and was the first to receive the title, Daijō Tennō (Great Abdicating Emperor). She helped to keep Monmu in power until her death six years later.1

She was the first ruler to be cremated in the Buddhist fashion.2


Many poems found in the man’yōshū were created during her reign and it is thought that perhaps the idea of compiling waka together in what would later become the man’yōshū was thought up during her reign.3

One poem of hers can be found in the Ogura Hyakunin Isshu (No.2) and goes as follows:

Japanese text4
Romanized Japanese3
English translation3
Haru sugite
natsu kinikerashi
shirotae no
koromo hosu chō
ama no Kaguyama
Spring has passed,
and the white robes of summer
are being aired
on fragrant Mount Kagu -
beloved of the gods.


1. Tsurumi, P. (1981) “Early Female Emperors” Historical Reflections Vol.8 No.1 pp.41-49.
2. Martin, P. (1997) ”The Chrysanthemum Throne”. Gloucestershire: Sutton Publishing Limited.
3. MacMillan, P. (2018) ”One Hundred Poets, One Poem Each: A Treasury of Classical Japanese Verse”. St. Ives: Penguin Classics.
4. Suzuki, H. et al. (1997) ”Genshoku: Ogura Hyakunin Isshu”. Tokyo: Bun’eidō.

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