Are Japan’s royal protocols stricter than Britain’s? Queen Elizabeth has personal rules about gifts, but Emperor Naruhito has to get approval – plus 6 more regulations

Japan’s royal family in 1959: the country’s emperor and empress are bound by much more stringent rules than those governing, say, the British royals. Photo: EPA-EFE/Imperial Household Agency Japan
It’s not just Queen Elizabeth and the British royal family whose lives are wrapped up in layer upon layer of – sometimes bizarre – protocol. The Japanese imperial household dates back to at least the sixth century AD – and claims lineage as far back as 660BC, when the legendary (likely mythical) first emperor Jimmu is said to have taken the throne. And a tremendous number of rules and regulations have been written concerning the royal family over the centuries.

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Much like Queen Elizabeth in the UK, the Emperor of Japan – currently Naruhito, who took the throne in 2019 following the abdication of his father, Akihito – does not play an active role in the politics of the country. His role is more ceremonial and focuses on state functions such as formalising the appointment of the prime minister, meeting with visiting royals and heads of state, and receiving foreign ambassadors and envoys, among myriad other responsibilities.

In this sense, the emperor is much like the heads of many European monarchies. However, there are some particular rules of etiquette unique to the Japanese royal family.

Japanese royals are not allowed jobs

Japan’s Emperor Naruhito and Empress Masako attend the national tree-planting festival in Owariasahi, Aichi prefecture. Photo: Jiji Press/AFP
Unlike many of their European counterparts, members of the Japanese royal family are not allowed to have jobs – the controversy that surrounds Prince Harry dabbling in TV and podcast production in Los Angeles would certainly not be tolerated in Tokyo. There, royals may only be employed at non-profit organisations working for the public good, and even then the emperor’s permission is required. Prince Akishino, for example, serves as the president of the Yamashina Institute for Ornithology where the former Princess Nori worked as a researcher from 1992 until 2005.

Marrying a commoner is forbidden – if you’re a woman

Sayako Kuroda and her husband Yoshiki Kuroda raise glasses of champagne during their wedding banquet at a Tokyo hotel in November 2005. Photo: AP Photo
Speaking of the former Princess Nori, she now goes by the name of Sayako Kuroda. This is because female members of the Japanese royal family are forbidden from marrying commoners. That’s not to say that women in the imperial household can’t marry whoever they love, but should the person be a commoner, they must forfeit their royal status to do so. Sayako took this step in 2005 when she married Yoshiki Kuroda, a long-time friend of her brother, Prince Akishino.

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In a stunning example of double standards, the same sacrifice was not required of Akishino when he too married outside the Japanese aristocracy and branches of the imperial family. His wife is Kiko Kawashima, the daughter of a university professor.

However, that didn’t mean the royal couple weren’t treated with some scorn. Kawashima wasn’t the first commoner to marry into the Japanese royal family – Empress Michiko, the daughter of a wealthy industrialist, was first in 1959. But she was the first woman from a middle-class background to marry into the imperial family when the ceremony took place in 1990. She was subsequently – and unflatteringly – dubbed “the apartment princess” by the media.

Japanese royalty cannot vote or run for office

Japan’s Lower House speaker Tadamori Oshima receives the imperial edict from Emperor Naruhito during the opening ceremony of a parliamentary session at the Upper House in Tokyo, Japan, in September 2020. Photo: EPA-EFE

In Japan, the emperor is implicitly forbidden from becoming involved in government. The country’s constitution states: “The emperor shall be the symbol of the state and of the unity of the people, deriving his position from the will of the people with whom resides sovereign power.” If the emperor were to vote or take up a role in government, this would contravene the constitution.

This is different compared to the British royal family, for instance. No law or constitution exists in the UK to forbid the monarch or royal family from voting, but by convention they choose not to so as to remain politically neutral – as is expected of them. Prince Harry and Meghan Markle still managed to ruffle feathers when they encouraged the American public to vote, despite not taking sides themselves.

Traditionally, women had to follow behind men

Sayako Kuroda follows her husband Yoshiki on their arrival at a press conference following their wedding ceremony in 2005. Photo: EPA

This piece of protocol has since fallen by the wayside, but in the past female members of the Japanese royal family were expected to walk behind the men to show deference.

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According to Professor Alice Y. Tseng, the idea of parity between the emperor and empress is a relatively new convention, one existing only since Empress Michiko entered the royal household in the mid-20th century. Before that, the royal couple would visit events on separate days, and when they did appear together, the empress was expected to follow dutifully in her husband’s tracks.

The Japanese royal family has no shared family name

Japan’s former Emperor Hirohito poses with family members at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo, Japan, in October 1939. Photo: EPA-EFE/Imperial Household Agency Japan
In contrast to the House of Windsor (Great Britain) or the House of Orange-Nassau (the Netherlands), Japan’s imperial household has no shared family name. Instead, members use only given names. The present imperial couple are simply Naruhito and Masako.

Similarly, Hirohito – who governed Japan before, during and after the Second World War – had no other name apart from his official title, Emperor Showa, which refers to his era. Upon death, the emperor is then only referred to by this name.

Women are not allowed to reign

Japan’s Empress Masako in October 2019. Photo: Reuters
Another controversial aspect of Japanese royal protocol is the fact that only men are allowed to ascend to the throne. That means no monarch like Britain’s Queen Elizabeth or Denmark’s reigning Margrethe II.

Historically, Japan did not always have such strict succession laws favouring men. Throughout Japanese history, there have been eight empresses on the throne – the last, Empress Go-Sakuramachi, abdicated in 1771 – but such possibility was brought to a halt in 1889 with the adoption of the Meiji Constitution, which followed a Prussian model and excluded women from succession. The Imperial Household Law of 1947 bolstered this decision.

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In the early 21st century, this situation came under scrutiny as the Japanese royal family was faced with a dearth of male heirs and possible extinction. There were numerous royal daughters, but until the birth of Prince Hisahito in 2006, no male heir had been born into the imperial family in over 40 years.

During the years around Hisahito’s birth, there was significant talk of reforming Japan’s laws of royal succession, but the prince’s birth largely ended that conversation.

No gifts allowed

Japan’s Emperor Naruhito accompanied by Empress Masako in May 2020. Photo: AP
Although Queen Elizabeth has certain rules about accepting gifts, those are strictly personal. The Japanese royal family, however, are forbidden by law from giving or receiving gifts without prior approval. The country’s constitution declares: “No property can be given to, or received by, the Imperial House, nor can any gifts be made therefrom, without the authorisation of the Diet.” The Diet is the country’s official legislature.
Gifts still are presented and received, although they are less lavish than, say, the mansions Queen Elizabeth has gifted to Kate Middleton. One notable present in recent years, however, was former US president Donald Trump’s gift of an American-made viola to Naruhito in 2019. The Emperor is a keen musician and once played a viola made from driftwood salvaged after the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami.
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  • Prince Harry and Meghan Markle are making bank with Netflix shows and podcasts in Los Angeles, but Prince Akishino and other Japanese royals can only work for non-profits
  • In Japan, a royal wouldn’t give or accept a lavish mansion like the queen gifted Kate Middleton – although former US president Donald Trump did gift Naruhito a fancy viola