For royal houses across Asia , 2019 has been a series of highs and lows. For Japan, it was a year of major change as the nation’s beloved Emperor Akihito stepped down, passing the throne to his son Naruhito and ushering in the Reiwa era of “beautiful harmony”. Elsewhere, there was drama in Thailand and Malaysia, as the constitutional monarchies of both nations have been rocked by royal break-ups and divorces. In neighbouring Brunei, meanwhile, the ruling house of Bolkiah had to address the state’s contentious new sharia laws. Asian royals continue to be revered because many wield constitutional, if not absolute, power, according to Saad Salman, founder and editor of The Royal Watcher website. For instance, Bhutan’s royal family represents an Asian monarchy that continues to be relevant in the 21st century, Salman said, adding that the country ranks first for economic freedom and peace in South Asia. View this post on Instagram 22 October 2019: His Majesty The King and Her Majesty The Gyaltsuen attended the Enthronement Ceremony of His Majesty Emperor Naruhito at the Akasaka Palace in Tokyo this morning. The ceremony was attended by Royalty and other State Guests and dignitaries from around 180 countries around the world. The Enthronement Ceremony, known in Japanese as Sokui no rei, follows ancient rituals. His Majesty Emperor Naruhito is the 126th Emperor of Japan. In the evening, Their Majesties graced the Court Banquet hosted by Their Majesties the Emperor and Empress at the Imperial Palace. #HisMajesty #KingJigmeKhesar #KingofBhutan #HerMajesty #QueenJetsunPema #QueenofBhutan #Bhutan #HMEmperorNaruhito #EnthronementCeremony #Japan A post shared by His Majesty King Jigme Khesar (@kingjigmekhesar) on Oct 22, 2019 at 8:00am PDT “The king remains the main advocate of democratisation, with a government that is notable for pioneering the concept of gross national happiness,” he said. “The king and queen enjoy immense popularity abroad, particularly in Thailand and India.” Asia’s royals are also beloved for their long-standing cultural impact. “Members of the royal families are instrumental in maintaining and continuing cultural traditions and practices,” Salman said, citing Thai King Maha Vajiralongkorn ’s much-anticipated procession of royal barges in early December to complete his coronation ceremony as an example. From Thai king’s consort Koi to Meghan Markle, why is royal life so hard? While European royalty such as the Windsors’ Will and Kate are popular in Asia, given their association with Western colonialism, Salman said there was no comparison to the affection many Asians had for their own royal families. The continent’s monarchs, he explained, are seen as unifying figures that represent their nations. Here’s a look at an eventful 2019 for Asia’s royal families. JAPAN Emperor Naruhito’s April ascension to the Chrysanthemum Throne made him the 126th emperor in a family line that stretches back to 660BC. Most Japanese have a deep reverence for the monarchy, which has opted to remain conservative and private – though Naruhito, 59, is seen as being willing to mix with ordinary people more freely, as evinced by his appearance in selfies with people on overseas visits. Empress Masako, who turned 56 earlier this month, has been warmly welcomed after her return to public life. She thanked the public for their support, saying in a statement: “Many smiley faces I’ve seen in many places are precious memories for me and they will be my big moral support as I move forward.” Japanese Empress Masako celebrates 56th birthday The empress has kept a low profile for years as she recovers from depression and other stress-related mental health issues. Observers say a major source of tension has been pressure to have a male heir. The couple have one child, Princess Aiko. “A major pall over the imperial family is the lack of male heirs in a rapidly reducing family,” said Salman from The Royal Watcher, who pointed out that the Japanese government has refused to negotiate any changes on imperial succession rules despite widespread public support for a reigning empress. There are recent reports in Japan that the Empress has been ill since undergoing surgery for breast cancer recently, with social media chatter speculating whether the Imperial Household Agency is preparing the public for bad news. The agency was condemned for failing to be open and honest when Emperor Hirohito was on his death bed in the late 1980s. THAILAND The world watched in surprise in October as King Vajiralongkorn stripped his royal consort Sineenat “Koi” Wongvajirapakdi of all her titles for “disloyalty”, less than three months after awarding them to his former bodyguard. Royal statements made it clear that tensions had arisen between Koi and the king’s fourth wife, Queen Suthida, whom he married in May. “A lesson many will have learned by now is that getting close to the king may bring untold advantages but also a high degree of danger,” said James Buchanan, a PhD candidate researching Thai politics at City University of Hong Kong. “Those who fall out of his favour often fall very, very hard.” Thai king strips royal consort of her titles over ‘disloyalty’ Going by recent history, Buchanan said, there was a chance of further scandal involving the king and his personal affairs. He added that some observers believed granting Koi the title of Noble Royal Consort – the first time it had been bestowed in nearly a century – was a deliberate signal that Vajiralongkorn intends to rule in a more “traditional” manner. The king in October brought two key military units under his direct command, citing an unspecified emergency situation that threatened national security and the monarchy. “We clearly see that Vajiralongkorn intends to be a more assertive, hands-on monarch than his father,” said Buchanan, adding that 2020 will be interesting in Thailand “as always”. MALAYSIA Malaysia was shocked by the unexpected abdication of Sultan Muhammad V, who stepped down in January from his position as Yang di-Pertuan Agong, or the country’s king. Muhammad V, who is sultan of the state of Kelantan, continues to keep quiet on the reasons for his June divorce from Russian former beauty queen Oksana Voevodina – whom he had married just the year before. Voevodina has stayed busy posting photos of the former couple’s infant son Tengku Ismail Leon Petra on Instagram. “I believe Voevodina has gone public with the story to demonstrate her side of the relationship, and try to elicit public support for herself and her son,” said The Royal Watcher’s Salman, adding that Voevodina is likely seeking to cement her son’s status as a Kelantan royal. Ex-wife of Malaysian royal posts photo of baby she says is their son However, Muhammad’s lawyer Koh Tien Hua in July suggested he was unclear on Ismail Leon’s paternity. In an interview with Singapore’s The Straits Times , Koh said: “There is no objective evidence as yet as to the biological father of the child.” Koh also said the divorce was undertaken through the mechanism under Muslim law known as “triple talaq”, whereby men can divorce their wives by saying the word “talaq” – or “divorce” in Arabic – three times. Gossip and scandal are two things royals try to avoid at all costs, Salman said, as it “hurts their reputation and takes away from their personal duties and charitable endeavours”. He added that discussion of the divorce and abdication will not “go away any time soon”. BRUNEI The April announcement of Brunei’s new sharia penal code drew global outrage for its inclusion of the death penalty by stoning for gay sex and adultery. A month later, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah said there had been “misinterpretations” of the law, and said it would not enforce the death penalty. “For that, we have given clarification. We are conscious of the fact that these misconceptions may cause apprehension,” the Sultan declared. A Bruneian man, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the worldwide backlash against the laws was an overreaction. Brunei’s adoption of hardline sharia laws signals shift to China “It was not a surprise for me, sharia law has always been observed,” he said. “This was just an enhanced version, but even with its implementation, Bruneians know the country’s common law system is still of first priority to be practised.” He added that the nation’s royals were being unfairly judged for their culture. “People need to do their research properly … to talk about punishment as a whole,” he said, adding that Western nations like the United States administered the death penalty on a much greater scale than Brunei.