Kyoto is the historical capital of Japan .
The Kyoto Imperial Palace (京都御所 Kyoto-gosho) is the latest of the imperial palaces built at or near its site in the north-eastern part of the old capital of Heiankyo after the abandonment of the larger original Heian Palace (大内裏 Dai-dairi) that was located to the west of the current palace during the Heian Period. The Palace lost much of its function at the time of the Meiji Restoration under Emperor Meiji, when the capital functions were moved to Tokyo in 1869. However, subsequent Emperors Taisho and Showa still had their coronation ceremonies at the palace.
During the coronation ceremony for Emperor Showa in 1928, an umbrella with a phoenix was held over his head, and the ceremony was decorated by banners with the words ‘banzai” (ten thousand years), with motifs of a crow and a kite — the two birds which were said to have brought victory to the first emperor Jimmu who unified the nation, and those of the sun and the moon.
The Heian period (平安時代 Heian jidai) lasted from 794 to 1185 and was the last period in classical Japanese history. (Heian means ‘peace’ in Japanese.)The period is named after the capital city of Heian-kyo, or modern Kyoto. It is the period in Japanese history when Buddhism, Taosism and other Chinese influences were at their height and is also noted for the flourishing of the arts, especially poetry and literature.
However, even though the Imperial House had power on the surface, the real power was in the hands of the Fujiwara clan, a powerful aristocratic family who had intermarried with the imperial family.
Subsequently, Japan underwent several periods when power was shifted away from the Imperial House to various clans.
(1) The Kamakura Period (1185 to 1333)
The Kamakura period began in 1185 when Minamoto no Yoritomo seized power from the emperors and established a bakufu, the Kamakura shogunate, in Kamakura.
It is a period that marks the transition to the Japanese “medieval” era, a nearly 700-year period in which the emperor, the court, and the traditional central government were left intact but largely relegated to ceremonial functions. Civil, military, and judicial matters were controlled by the bushi (samurai) class, the most powerful of whom was the de facto national ruler, the shōgun.
(2) The Muromachi Period (1336 to 1573)
In 1333, the Kamakura shogunate was overthrown in a coup d’état known as the Kemmu Restoration, led by Emperor Go-Daigo and his followers (among them Ashikaga Takauji). Emperor Go-Daigo had come to the throne in 1318 and had made it clear from the beginning that he intended to rule Japan from his palace in Kyōto. The Imperial House was restored to political influence, and the government was became a civilian one, replacing the military government of the Kamakura Shogunate.
This left the warrior class throughout Japan in tumult. In early 1335, with support from other regional warlords, Ashikaga left Kyōto and moved to Kamakura where he began assuming powers that had not been given him by the Emperor and appeared to be standing up for the warrior class against the civilian authority.
After taking Kyōto from Emperor Go-Daigo, the Ashikaga clan made Kyōto the capital of the Ashikaga Shogunate in late 1336. This became the new capital of the Northern Court. Go-Daigo, then, moved to the town of Yoshino and established the new capital of the Southern Court there. This ended the Kemmu restoration and the early years (1336 to 1392) of the Muromachi period are known as the Nanboku-cho (Northern and Southern Court) period. However, by 1368, the ascendancy of the Ashikaga Shogunate was so complete that Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, the new Shogun, was able to rule Japan without reference to the emperor.
The later years of the Muromachi period, 1467 to 1573, are also known as the Sengoku Peirod (Period of Warring Kingdoms), a time of intense internal warfare, and correspond with the period of the first contacts with the West—the arrival of Portuguese “Nanban” traders. At the same time, trade and cultural exchange flourished with China under the Ming Dynasty. Of special significance was the coming to Japan of Zen Buddhist monks and Zen Buddhism came to have a great influence with the ruling class in Japan.
The Muromachi period ended in 1573 when the 15th and last shōgun was driven out of the capital in Kyōto by Oda Nobunaga.
(3) The Azuchi-Momoyama/late Warring Kingdoms period (1569 to 1603)
This period marks the military reunification and stabilization of the country under a single political ruler, first by the campaigns of Oda Nobunaga (1534–1582) who almost united Japan. Nobunaga decided to reduce the power of the Buddhist priests, and gave protection to Christianity. He was killed in a revolt in 1582. Unification was finally achieved by one of Nobunaga’s generals, Toyotomi Hideyoshi.
Following his death, Japan experienced a short period of succession conflict. Tokugawa Ieyasu , one of the regents for Hideyoshi’s young heir, emerged victorious and seized political power.
(4) The Edo Period (1603-1868)
The Edo, or Tokugawa period saw power centralized in the hands of a hereditary shogunate that took control of religion, regulated the entire economy, subordinated the nobility, and set up uniform systems of taxation, government spending and bureaucracies. It avoided international involvement and wars, established a national judiciary and suppressed protest and criticism. The Tokugawa era brought peace and prosperity to a nation of some 31 million.
The administration of the country was shared by over two hundred daimyo in a federation governed by the Tokugawa Shogunate. For fifteen generations the Tokugawa clan monopolized the title of Sei-i Taishōgun (often shortened to shōgun). With their headquarters at Edo (present-day Tokyo), they commanded the allegiance of the other daimyō, who in turn ruled their domains with a rather high degree of autonomy.
During this period, power was in the firm grip of the Tokugawa shogunate, successive emperors resided in their palace in Kyoto and played largely a ceremonial role.
(5) Meiji Restoration (1868-1912)
Renewed contact with the West precipitated a profound alteration of Japanese society. Importantly, within the context of Japan’s subsequent aggressive militarism, the signing of the treaties was viewed as profoundly humiliating and a source of national shame. The Tokugawa shōgun was forced to resign, and soon after the Boshin War of 1868, the emperor was restored to power, beginning a period of fierce nationalism and intense socio-economic restructuring known as the Meiji Restoration.
The foundation of the Meiji Restoration was the 1866 Satsuma-Choshu Alliance between leaders of the reformist elements in the Satsuma and Choshu Domains. They supported the Emperor Komei and were brought together by Sakamoto Ryoma for the purpose of challenging the ruling Tokugawa Shogunate and restoring the Emperor to power. After Emperor Kōmei’s death on January 30, 1867, Emperor Meiji ascended the throne on February 3.
The Tokugawa Shogunate came to its official end on November 9, 1867, when Tokugawa Yoshinobu, the 15th Tokugawa Shogun, “put his prerogatives at the Emperor’s disposal” and resigned 10 days later. This was effectively the “restoration” (Taisei Hōkan) of imperial rule.
Emperor Meiji was officially crowned in September 1868 in Kyoto and, later that year, the capital was moved to Edo, renamed Tokyo.
However, Emperor Meiji’s successors Emperors Taisho and Showa both returned to Kyoto for their coronation.