Gemmei (c. 661–721)

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Gemmei (c. 661–721)

Japanese empress, 43rd tennō of Japan, who commissioned the Kojiki (chronicle of ancient matters), the first written history of Japan. Name variations: Gemmei-tenno; Empress Gemmyo; Princess Abe or Princess Ahe (her name before she became empress). Pronunciation: Gem-may. Birth thought to have been in 661, most likely in Naniwa, then the capital; died in Nara (new capital) in 721 and buried in the tomb, "Nahoyama no Higashi"; daughter of Emperor Tenji and Nuhi; married Prince Kusakabe; children: Princess Hidaka (680–748), who ruled as Empress Genshō; Emperor Mommu (d. 707).

One of Japan's most able rulers, this Nara Period empress (fifth of the ten empresses to date in Japanese history) reigned from 707 to 715. Born in 661, the daughter of Nuhi and Emperor Tenji, she was originally named Ahe. At Tenji's abdication in 672, several individuals ruled Japan including her uncle Temmu and her sister Jitō . Ahe ascended the throne as Empress Gemmei, the result of a deathbed wish of her son, Emperor Mommu. In her mid-40s, reigning as the 43rd tennō, Gemmei was politically seasoned and wise, quickly proving that she was able to wield her power decisively yet in a spirit of moderation. She took steps to further strengthen the authority of the tennō (emperor-empress) and the central government by enforcing laws against peasants who fled their fields and by restricting property ownership of the nobility and Buddhist temples.

The empress' most significant contributions, however, were cultural. It had previously been the responsibility of the official reciters to memorize records of ancient events and narrate the epic tales. Through a series of decrees in 712 and 713, Empress Gemmei commissioned the transcription of the historical tales of Japan which were compiled in the three-volume Kojiki, a chronicle of the rise of the imperial clan and aristocratic families from the creation of the Japanese islands down to the reign of the 33rd tennō, Suiko. This history further strengthened the authority and legitimacy of Gemmei's family—the imperial clan. Gemmei ordered provincial governments throughout Japan to collect and compile their own histories, as well as information about soil, products, weather, and geological features. These historical gazettes contributed to a growing sense of national identity.

Aware of the importance of adhering to traditions, several years after ascending the throne she moved the imperial court from Asuka to Nara (Heijo) in Yamato province. Responding to the need to stimulate economic activity, she ordered the first striking of copper coins in the history of Japan.

As was the case with educated women and men of her time, Gemmei wrote poetry; several of her poems were included the Manyōshu, an imperial anthology of poetry commissioned in the mid-8th century. In it, she wrote: "Listen to the sounds of the warriors' elbow guards;/Our captain must be ranging the shields/To drill the troops." During a prolonged illness in 715, Gemmei abdicated in favor of her daughter Hidaka who reigned as Empress Genshō . Gemmei continued to supervise affairs of state, however, until her death in 721.


Aoki, Michiko. "Jitō Tennō: The Female Sovereign," in Heroic With Grace: Legendary Women of Japan. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 1991, pp. 40–76.

Miner, Earl Roy, Hiroko Odagiri, and Robert E. Morrell. The Princeton Companion to Classical Japanese Literature. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1985.

Nelson, Andrew N. The New Nelson Japanese-English Character Dictionary. Rutland, VT: C.E. Tuttle, 1997.

Papinot, Edmond. Historical and Geographical Dictionary of Japan. Ann Arbor, MI: Overbeck Company, 1948.

suggested reading:

Tsurumi, E. Patricia. "The Male Present Versus the Female Past: Historians and Japan's Ancient Female Emperors," in Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars. Vol. XIV, no. 4. October–December 1982, pp. 71–75.

Linda L. Johnson , Professor of History, Concordia College, Moorhead, Minnesota