The Meiji Constitution, promulgated on February 11, 1889, confers sovereignty to the Emperor, but at the same time limits his power by granting the Diet and the Cabinet the ability to pass laws which the Emperor cannot abrogate. The Diet also had the constitutional power to revoke any ordinances that the Emperor issued in times of emergency. This ultimate conflict between imperial sovereignty and constitutional government was not resolved in the Meiji Constitution and was left to the Diet and the Emperor to negotiate over the years.
The ambiguity inherent in the constitutional monarchy outlined in the Meiji Constitution made it unclear to what extent Emperor Hirohito (1901-1989, r. 1926-1989) was responsible for the Japanese invasion of China and Southeast Asia, the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and other military actions during World War II. General MacArthur (1880-1964) and the Allied Forces that occupied Japan after its surrender in 1945 ultimately ruled that the Emperor was free of those responsibilities and he was allowed to remain on the throne. Prime Minister Tōjō Hideki (1884-1948), on the other hand, was put on trial for war crimes of aggression and was hanged for his leadership in the war. Before his execution Tōjō did everything possible to absolve the Emperor of any blame for the war, and the Emperor was spared from standing trial. Emperor Hirohito, who had become Emperor in 1926, remained on the throne until his death in 1989 and was succeeded as emperor by his son Emperor Akihito, who reigns today.
The Meiji Constitution is unequivocal in holding the emperor as sacred and inviolable and in asserting the connection between the emperor and the origin of Japan and its people. Article 1 of the Meiji Constitution states that the Empire of Japan shall be governed by a line of emperors unbroken for ages eternal.
Thus from the time of the Meiji Restoration in 1868 until the surrender of Japan to the Allied Forces in 1945, religion and the state were one, tightly bound together in the form of the sacred and divine emperor, direct descendant of the Sun Goddess with a supernatural ancestry documented in the sacred text of Kojiki. General MacArthur and the Occupation Forces broke the religion and state connection in the immediate postwar period. In his famous "New Year's Radio Address" of 1946, Emperor Hirohito declared that he was not divine and that he was merely a "human emperor." In keeping with this renunciation of divinity, the post-war constitution stated that "the emperor shall be a symbol of the state and the unity of the people, deriving his position from the will of the people with whom resides sovereign power."
Today, the emperor performs a large number of rituals for the continued well-being of the country and its people. These include rites of renewal and thanksgiving to the Sun Goddess and the myriad other deities in Shintō, and a number of secret rituals that only the emperor and a select group of priests know. How to conduct these rituals is passed down during the extensive training given to him as Crown Prince by his father and priests in the Imperial Household Agency and the National Association of Shintō Shrines.
The paucity of males born into the Imperial Family has stimulated debate about whether a female can ascend to the throne and whether her offspring can likewise succeed to the position of emperor. On a few occasions in the past, women have served as emperor, but none of them was succeeded by one of their own children. In every case, in the next generation the position reverted back to a male from somewhere in the male line.