Japanese Royal Family: What do they do?

One day when we were watching TV, I asked my wife, ‘Who is that important-looking guy I keep seeing all the time?’ Turns out it was Naruhito, the Crown Prince of Japan (皇太子徳仁親王). Japan has a ‘Crown Prince’? Shows how little I knew…

Japanese Royal Family
Japanese Royal Family

I come from a country without kings, queens, Crown Princes or emperors, so I don’t even have a framework to put this into. Who is the Royal Family of Japan anyway, and what do they do?

The current Emperor is His Imperial Majesty Akihito (明仁). He and Empress Michiko (皇后美智子) plus their children make up Japan’s royal family. Yes, they are constantly abused by the tabloid media just like in the UK. In fact, you only ever see them on trashy TV shows or the tabloid ads on the train. The latest tabloid fodder is little Princess Aiko’s school bullying.

The history of the Emperor and Royal Family

Japan’s is the world’s oldest monarchy, supposedly dating back to the first emperor Jimmu (神武) in the 6th century B.C. The Japanese term for Emperor is tennō (天皇, heavenly sovereign). Before World War II, the Emperor ruled with divine right. For thousands of years, he was revered in this way. Young people were taught that the purpose of their existence was to protect the Emperor and die for his majesty if needed.

After Japan’s surrender in September 1945, the emperor was no longer viewed as having the presence of a deity. For the first time, his voice was heard on the radio and photographs were taken of him. People found out that you wouldn’t be blinded if you looked at him; it was the end of a tradition that had lasted for thousands of years.

Emperor Hirohito and Empress Kojun
Emperor Hirohito and Empress Kojun

The emperor at that time, HIM Hirohito, was actually quite a remarkable person. He went from God-like status to human status, changing with his country. The new roles that he created for the Emperor and Royal Family of Japan still exist today.

The Royal Family today

The Japanese royal family has nothing to do with the affairs of government. In fact, this has always been so. Traditionally, affairs of state were handled by his staff of generals with the emperor himself playing a more symbolic role. The emperor would just ride around on a white stallion and push his weight around.

The emperor today is a ‘symbol of the state and the unity of the people,’ according to the country’s post-war constitution. The royal family represents continuity for an ancient tradition.

Aside from being a symbol, the emperor has official duties. He must meet with foreign dignitaries, hold banquets, give awards to Japanese citizens and make official visits (recently, he visited the quake-hit areas and evacuation camps in Tōhoku). He convenes the Diet and appoints the new Prime Minister after he is elected by the Diet. He is also a Shintō (神道) priest and performs religious duties.

Crown Prince Naruhito and Crown Princess Masako, with Princess Aiko
Crown Prince Naruhito and Crown Princess Masako, with Princess Aiko

The royal family lives an isolated existence in the Imperial Palace. They have no money—everything being furnished by the state—and don’t have last names. No one really knows what they do most of the time. I assume they spend quite a bit of it hiding from the media.

Who cares about the Royal Family?

Many people believe that in this day and age, the royal family is not needed anymore. Other than the trash media, who cares what the Royal Family does? From what I can tell, mostly elderly Japanese. Young people are fairly indifferent to what goes on in the Imperial Palace.

One small segment of the population that cares deeply about the royal family are the ultra-right wing uyoku (右翼, right-wing nationalists). Among their many wacko plans, they want to restore the emperor to his status as God and leader of Japan. But the right wingers are generally considered fringe crazies by the rest of the country.

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Originally from the States, +Greg Scott has gone native in Chiba, Japan, where he lives with his wife and two children. When not writing, he plays drums like a meth-crazed gorilla in several Tōkyō bands.

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  • http://twitter.com/mubblegum Beth Robinson

    I never knew all of that about the royal family, quite insightful. 

  • Alexandra Domeracki

    Very interesting article! There is one small thing that is wrong, though: there have been pictures of the Emperor taken before 1945. The Austrian photographer Baron Von Stillfried-Ratenicz had taken a picture of the Emperor Meiji in 1872, and during the same year, Uchida Kuichi took the official portraits of the Emperor and Empress Haruko. Uchida Kuichi took more pictures of them in 1873, and these portraits were widely available on the market.

    • Greg

      Wow, thanks Alexandra.  I didn’t know that.  I bet those pictures were pretty hot items. 

  • Anonymous

    Insightful article. Thanks. It would be good to have captions on the pictures though, naming the people in them. Otherwise they are a little meaningless. 

    • http://twitter.com/ocapehorn Ollie Capehorn

      Hi, if you hover over the pictures then there are captions telling you who are in each photo as tooltips. 

    • http://divita.eu/ seifip

      I’ve added some captions to the photos :)

    • Anonymous

      Thanks guys, very helpful.

      I just found out you can vote for the next blog post topic on your facebook page. That’s super awesome! And for anyone who wants to vote, visit http://www.facebook.com/nihongoup

  • Super Learn Japanese

    Hey ^_^
    Just thought I’d let you know about my website superlearnjapanese.com. It’s only sort of just up and running for the time being, but I intend on posting loads of content on there regarding how I learnt to Speak Japanese, what I used, and the great resources on the internet :)
    superlearnjapanese.com
    Thanks!

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/石川匠/100002781490940 石川匠

    Wow Japan has a Royal Family,even in the present?
    Wow…fantastic! :)

  • Nica

    Uhmm, the guy with the funny mustache was actually HRH Prince AKISHINO. Crown Prince NARUHITO is seated beside the emperor. :)

    • Greg

      Thanks, Nica, I must’ve got my princes mixed up.

  • http://twitter.com/jseb_92 Seb

    this is nice ^^

  • F.A.

    Wow. Who knew?

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  • Amelia

    oh wait…I have seen the emperor somewhere…

  • Eklair

    The Emperor didn’t leave the Imperial Palace or deal with the governing of Japan during the Tokugawa (possibly misspelt) Shogunate era.

    When Meiji became Emperor, however, he was the driving force for the Restoration and had his hands in everything dealing with Japan. Of course there’s only so much just one person can do, so some of this was dealt with by subordinates. Still, the emperor was the key to the governance of the country after taking it back from the Shogunate.

    Also during the Meiji era is when people started seeing the Emperor. That’s because he could actually leave the confines of the Palace in Kyoto (the Shogunate were the reason for the confinement). And as someone else mentioned, pictures were taken of him.

    Can’t say much about Taisho and Showa and their eras, but I assume they didn’t reverse Meiji’s efforts and go straight back into hiding and being mere symbols.

    …Just wanted to add something since although the Emperor may not have done much over much of the last several centuries, Meiji and Showa (Taisho was only 12 years, not sure what he did) were pretty influential. Lots of modern Japan (prefectures, education, military, government system) were started in the Meiji Restoration and have been strengthened since then.

  • no

    Trying searching Hirohito online for war crimes. He was much more worse than Hitler. It would be like Hitler’s family ruling Germany today.

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