Retired Emperor

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  • Japanese: 院政 (insei)

The Retired Emperor system, also known as the system of cloistered emperors, or insei, was a mode of governance in which political power resided chiefly in a retired emperor, while the reigning emperor, often underage, was more or less a puppet ruler. This was seen chiefly in the mid-Heian period, an era often described as the "Insei Period" for that reason, though some later retired emperors were quite prominent as well.

Following a lengthy period of Fujiwara clan dominance of the Imperial Court (through monopolization of the regency positions of sesshô and kanpaku), in 1087 Emperor Shirakawa became the first Retired Emperor to claim significant political power. He took advantage of his ability to name sesshô and kanpaku himself, naming those loyal to him to those positions, while also reducing the power of those positions.

Beginning with Shirakawa, Retired Emperors began to form their own "cloistered" Imperial Courts, or in-no-chô. These usually consisted of five to twenty close attendants (kinshin), including provincial governors, relatives, talented courtiers without official position in the bureaucracy, and others who had for one reason or another attracted the favor of the Retired Emperor.

The system was maintained as successive emperors, often not long after coming of age, retired in favor of their child successors, naming those they wished as Regent, and claiming power for themselves as Retired Emperor.

The Retired Emperors lost power, however, and the so-called Insei Period came to an end, in the 1150s, as the samurai class, and the Taira clan in particular, seized power. Taira no Kiyomori came to occupy a similar political circumstance to that the Fujiwara claimed before being unseated by Shirakawa; from roughly 1156 until his death in 1180, Kiyomori dominated the Imperial Court. The Retired Emperors never again regained the singular position they once had, as Minamoto no Yoritomo established the first shogunate shortly afterwards (in 1185), securing samurai control over the governance and administration of the State.


  • Helen McCullough trans., The Tale of the Heike, Stanford University Press (1990), 2.