A pioneer even in death
Empress Jito achieved numerous “Japan firsts” even after she died. For example, she was the first emperor in Japan to be cremated. While cremation is the most common funeral practice in modern-day Japan, burial of corpses was the norm prior to the spread of Buddhism. Records show that the Japanese Buddhist monk Dosho was the only major figure before Jito to have been cremated. Jito’s preference for cremation may be traced to the influence of Emperor Tenmu, who was a keen advocate of Buddhism. Another rarity in those days was a joint burial with one’s husband. Jito’s was only the second instance of this, following the burial of Emperor Senka with his wife Tachibanano-nakatsu. Jito always stood by her husband and carried out his wishes. She also supported her grandson’s imperial reign by being the first to take the post of daijo-tenno (retired emperor). And she was a pioneer with regard to funeral practices. Jito’s many achievements live on to this day in the culture and systems of modern Japan.
The Life of Empress Jito
- Born as Sarara, the second daughter of Prince Nakano-oe (later Emperor Tenchi) and Soga no Ochino-iratsume.
- Sarara marries her uncle Prince Oama at the age of 13.
- Sarara gives birth to Prince Kusakabe.
- Prince Oama wins the Jinshin War.
- Prince Oama enthroned as Emperor Tenmu. Sarara becomes empress consort.
- The Yoshino Pact is made.
- Emperor Tenmu commissions the construction of Yakushiji Temple.
- Prince Kusakabe becomes crown prince.
- Prince Karu, Prince Kusakabe’s son, is born.
- Emperor Tenmu passes away.
- Prince Kusakabe passes away suddenly at the age of 28. Sarara finalizes the Asuka Kiyomihara Code.
- Sarara is enthroned as Empress Jito at the age of 46. Jito creates a new family register system.
- Jito relocates the capital to Fujiwara-kyo.
- Prince Karu becomes crown prince at the age of 15 and is enthroned as Emperor Monmu. Jito becomes daijo-tenno and supports the emperor.
- The Taiho Code is instituted.
- Japanese missions to Tang China are resumed for the first time in 30 years. Jito dies aged 58. After being cremated—a first for an emperor—she is buried alongside Emperor Tenchi.
Note: Ages are rendered in the traditional Japanese age-reckoning system, in which newborns start from one instead of zero, and age is incremented on New Year’s Day.
Editor’s note: While edited for readability, this story is based on actual historical accounts. Empress Jito was undoubtedly one of the “Heroines of Asuka”. We hope her life story will inspire your interest in the culture and history of Asuka.