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The Insei system (院政), or cloistered rule, was a specific form of government in Japanmarker, in which the Emperor abdicated, but kept exerting power and influence. Retired emperors are called Daijō Tennō or Jōkō. Choosing to enter a buddhist monastic community, a retired emperor would become a Daijō Hōō (太上法皇) or cloistered emperor.

There were Daijō Tennō and Daijō Hōō before and after the Heian period, but the Insei system usually refers to the governing system put in place by Emperor Shirakawa in 1086 during the Heian period.

Background of the Insei system

The ritsuryo code provided for abdicated emperors to exert some kind of powers. There are indeed early examples of abdicating emperors, such as Empress Jito, Emperor Shōmu or Emperor Uda in the 7th, 8th and 9th centuries. Retired Emperor Uda was probably one of the first examples of the insei system, his successor Emperor Daigo being often sick.

At the end of the 10th century, the Hokke Family of the Fujiwara clan held political power in Japan through the Sessho and Kampaku regency system, and the emperor was more of a figurehead.

In 1068, Emperor Go-Sanjo was the first Emperor in almost two centuries not being of Hokke Family descent. After reaching the throne, he exerted personal power while the Hokke family was dealing with internal conflicts of interests between Fujiwara no Yorimichi and his brother Fujiwara no Norimichi. He was in position to edict several laws and regulations (most notably the Enkyū Shōen Regulation Decree) during his rule, thus weakening the regency. Sick, he abdicated in 1072 in favor of Emperor Shirakawa, and died the following year. Although not having the time to exert rule by himself after his retirement, he had weakened the regency and had paved the way for the apparition of the cloistered rule.

In 1086, Emperor Shirakawa in his turn, abdicated in favor of his son, Emperor Horikawa, who was 4 at the time. The objective of the Emperor may have been to protect his young son against his own younger brother, who was a serious pretendent to the throne, but strongly exerting his personal power after his retirement he set up in effect the Insei system and definitively weakened the regency.

The Insei system

The retired emperor set up the In no Cho (院庁), a Department under his direct control, edicting his orders through Inzen (院宣) and Innocho Kudashi Bumi (院庁下文).Cloistered emperors also had their own army, the Hokumen no Bushi (北面の武士). The creation of this army led to the rise in power of the Taira clan.

The end of the Heian period was marked with a succession of cloistered emperors :

There could be several retired emperors living at the same time. However, there was only one ruler (emperor or retired emperor), the Chiten (治天). It is important to understand that the Chiten was not ruling instead of the Emperor, but was exercising his power of patriarch of the Imperial family.Insei system can also be seen as a mean of stabilization.

The Hōgen Rebellion, at the death of Toba, was nonetheless an example of direct opposition between the Emperor and the retired Emperor.

The end of the rule of Go-Shirakawa was marked by civil war (the Genpei War) and the rise of Minamoto no Yoritomo as the first Kamakura Shogun.

Insei during the Shogunates

Usually the establishment of Kamakura Bakufu marks the beginning of Kamakura period. Yet this did not immediately end the Insei system. Though Kamakura Bakufu took over the police force and ruled Eastern Japan, the authority of Emperor and retired Emperors remained. The court and shogunate coexisted till the end of Edo period. At least at the early Kamakura period, Chiten kept substantial power over many important decisions.

However, when Go-Toba, a grandson of Go-Shirakawa and Chiten at the time, planned to overthrow Kamakura Bakufu and failed (Jōkyū War), the power of the court, namely that of (retired) Emperors was markedly cut down by the shogunate.

Even after the Jōkyū War, the Insei System continued to exist, at least formally, for two centuries. There were movements to take the authority back into the hands of Emperor at the throne, such as the Kemmu restoration by Emperor Go-Daigo, but in general a retired emperor presided as the head of the Kyoto court, with the approval of Bakufu.

There were a few examples of retired Emperors supervising their successor later in the Edo period, and technically these cases are regarded as Insei as well.


  • Ponsonby-Fane, Richard A. B. (1956). Kyoto: The Old Capital of Japan, 794-1869. Kyoto: The Ponsonby Memorial Society.
  • G. Cameron Hurst III (1976). " Insei: Abdicated sovereigns in the politics of late Heain Japan 1086-1185". Columbia University Press.

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