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I'm kinda surprised that there's been only one dynasty (Yamato) in Japan up until now, unlike China with one group wiping out another group and starting a new dynasty constantly. Looking at Wikipedia's list of other countries, nearly all of them had multiple dynasties in its history.

Were there no groups that fought to claim the throne in Japan (like in China)?

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In general, people fight over thrones because of the power it represents. For Japan, the tennō was not particularly powerful in the first place, but moreover lost secular power quite early in Japanese history. For most of the last 1,200 years, true political power was decoupled from the imperial title. Hence while many factions fought for power in Japan, most did not seek the throne itself (although internally branches of the imperial family jockeyed for the position). It was not worth it in the first place.

Secondly, though lacking true power, the throne - and by extension the imperial line that monopolised it - were the source of legitimacy. Japanese political landscape was extremely fragmented and fractious, and governance tended to default to a more council-like system of rule. So-called ruling clans usually controlled only a relatively small territory, no more than 25% of Japan at the peak. They derived authority over the rest of Japan from the sanction of the imperial court, which remained recognised as the legitimate government (even after it had ceased any real function).

An ambitious samurai lord might force the court to install a candidate to his liking as the next emperor. He could not reasonably make himself the emperor and benefit from the legitimisation that ancient office could provide. The tennō was not just the sovereign, but also a high priest the Japan's native religion - a position somewhat akin to the popes of Europe, in that it carried significant religious, ceremonial and symbolic functions beyond being a mere political leader. Consider how in the Investiture Controversy, Holy Roman Emperor Henry V installed anti-popes, but didn't try to become pope himself.

Overall, it is true that the title of Tennō was occupied by a single dynasty, in the same sense that only one dynasty sat on the French throne between Hugh Capet and Louis XVI. However, actual control of Japan was held by several different dynasties.


Notes:

From about 810, the Fujiwara clan gained ascendancy by leveraging their marriage ties. In 866, Fujiwara no Yoshifusa was appointed to the office of regent, the first non-royal to hold that powerful post. He consolidated Fujiwara rule by abusing his position excluding rival clans, which heretofore had acted as counterweights, from the court. The Fujiwara thus established what is known as sekkan rule, characterised by a monopoly on the offices of Sessho (regent) and Kampauku (chancellor), as well being the in-laws of the emperor.

In fact the imperial office was rather inundated by ceremonial duties, which increasingly became the court's chief concern during and after the Heian period. This was sufficiently troublesome that several ambitious emperors found it necessary to abdicate the throne before engaging in the game of thrones politics. This created what was known as cloistered rule by the retried emperors. They were seen as the heads of the Imperial family, chiten no kimi, i.e. the sovereign.

The Imperial-Fujiwara conflict ultimately facilitated the rise of the military samurai as a new political force. In time this military class seized power from the civil government, often (not always) establishing military rule known as the bakufu / shogunate. The shogunates originally existed in parallel with the still-extant civil government under the emperor, but expanded to the point of almost completely supplanting the court by the Edo period.

Since 1167, about six samurai clans were able to become (more or less) de facto rulers of Japan:

  1. The Taira, a cadet branch of the imperial family who gained power by usurping royal authority to bestow high offices and governorships on their own kin.
  2. The Minamoto, another branch of the imperial family who established the first shogunate after overthrowing the Taira.
  3. The Hōjō, stewards of the Minamoto Shogunate. Took over real power when the Direct Minamoto line suddenly died off.
  4. The Ashikaga, a branch of the Minamoto clan. Founded the second shogunate when Ashikaga Takauji championed the anti-Hōjō cause after the latter's dictatorial rule provoked a revolt.
  5. The Toyotomi, who inherited the conquests of Oda Nobunaga. They took over the Fujiwara's court positions and ruled Japan in the name of the traditional civil government.
  6. The Tokugawa, founders of the third shogunate after usurping power from the Toyotomi. They claimed descent from Minamoto and Fujiwara origins, but that seems to be a forgery.

One might consider Japan in this period similar to a modern constitutional monarchy, except of course real power was won on the field of battle, rather than in democratic elections.

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    Very nicely done. The first Europeans made reference to "a Pope of sorts", referring to what we generally call the Japanese emperor. The Papal analogy is great shorthand if you don't look TOO hard. Certainly better than thinking of him as an emperor. – Smithers Jan 3 '15 at 5:55
  • Actually the Roman Emperors after the death of Theodosius for about 50 years is a very close simulation of the situation - true power in the hands of military leaders, Emperor is a child or figurehead, mostly. – Oldcat Jan 5 '15 at 22:43
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I think the best way to understand this would be to understand the cultural atmosphere in both China and Japan, which may provide some insights into this seemingly-unusual system of rule.

In China, the Mandate of Heaven provided an ideology which professed the idea that the ability of rulers would be evaluated by the gods, and if a ruler was fit to rule, he would have the mandate of heaven. This led to a constant cycle of rising and falling of rulers and resulted in the emergance of many dynasties.

In Japan, the Yamato peoples were able to unite the smaller provinces with a militaristic culture. In turn, they destroyed the system of clans and promoted a system of ancestor-based rulership. From then on, the Yamato rulers were looked up to as gods, as a result of this ancestor-based rulership system and the unification of the greater Japanese region. From then on, other rulers (like the Soga and Nakatomi) claimed justification for rulership based on relations to the Yamato people.

Furthermore, China was subject to a whole bunch of other problems which promoted instability throughout the region. For example, the river known as the "Great Sorrow" in China changed paths every couple of centuries, leading to agricultural problems and starvation. Often, this was viewed as a sign that the ruler had lost the mandate of heaven and consequently resulted in political turmoil.

Additionally, Japan's isolated status as an island resulted in a greater ability to defend against Mongol incursions in the 12th and 13th centuries when compared to china and an overall autonomy from the rest of Asia. Later, in the 15th to 18th centuries, their unwillingness to partake in the globalized trade system also lent itself to greater political stability.

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This is probably more appropriate as a comment to Semaphore's extensive answer, but since I don't have 50 points yet I will post it as an answer. Hopefully this sheds a little more light on the difference between Japan and other Asian countries.

The old Japanese word for govern is Matsurigoto (政)、the modern word for politics is Seiji (政治), notice that they use the same character? The old word is derived from Matsuri (祭り), today meaning festival, but in olden days it covered not only that but most religious ceremonies. Before the introduction of Buddhism, the Son of Heaven was (and to some extent still is) considered a descendant of Amaterasu Omikami, the Sun Goddess that created Japan. Hence, to the Japanese he has never been an "emperor", implying political power, but always a Son of Heaven (Tenshi [天子] later Tenno [天皇]) implying divination and religious power. As the need for more profane political power developed it was always disassociated with the "imperial" person, but put in control of the "imperial" institution belonging in the hands of people closely associated with the Son of Heaven.

This was for all intentions a conscious effort to separate what we would call church and state. Those around him realized that political power was something that created desire and avarice, and the Son of Heaven could not be subjected to such base needs. The earliest military struggles in Japan, such as the Taira and Minamoto, was thus never for the Chrysanthemum Throne, but for the offices surrounding that throne. The difference being that a Chinese emperor sat on the Mandate of Heaven, but the Japanese emperor was an integral part of Heaven, thus could not be questioned, whereas the mandate is up for interpretation.

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Most of Japanese history the emperor was a figurehead so there was no struggle to become an emperor, the real power belonged to a shogun for which position there was a lot of struggle indeed.

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