Life Inside The Japanese Royal Family
July 3, 2014

Life Inside The Japanese Royal Family

Since the most recent British royal wedding between Prince William and Catherine Middleton got so much worldwide attention, many people will be aware that Catherine was previously a commoner (meaning that her family are not of royal stock, not that she spits on the street and swears too much) before she married William. Her marriage to the man second in line to the throne and one day to become king meant that she herself became royalty, as she entered into what cheap newspapers at the time regularly described as “every girl’s dream,” failing to take account of the fact that quite a lot of girls may strongly reject the very idea of royalty or indeed marriage, and dream of being world quad bike champions. But regardless of the stereotypes, Catherine left behind her life in a fairly normal middle class family and began a very different royal lifestyle.

A story out of Japan this week highlights the case of Princess Noriko, whose experience of royal life is a sadder flipside to Catherine’s story, as she is set to marry a commoner in the fall and subsequently lose the royal status given to her by birth. As things stand, when she marries Kunimaru Senge, the son of a high-ranking priest, she will become a commoner like her husband and no longer allowed attend official royal functions. That is, unless the law is changed, and that is the discussion this week, which comes just a few weeks after the couple’s engagement.

The story highlights a few interesting things for those perhaps not familiar with the royal family of Japan, or indeed those who did not realize that Japan still has a royal family. In fact, the correct description is the “imperial family,” and although the empire of Japan is long gone, along with empires in general, Japan still has a person referred to as emperor, perhaps the only instance of the word still being used outside of Star Wars. Princess Noriko is a cousin of the current emperor, Emperor Akihito.

Even the term emperor hints at an age gone by, and much about the present imperial family suggests that such an image is appropriate. The Japanese imperial family is the oldest continuous hereditary monarchy in the world, with a reliable history of 1500 years, and possibly longer if unreliable evidence is used. But is there still a place for ancient practices when it comes to marriage and family? A passage from the Japan Times report on the role of women who marry outside of the imperial family goes: “With the death of Prince Katsura, a cousin of the Emperor, on June 8, the size of the Imperial family fell to 21 members. Eight are unmarried women, meaning that the family’s size will shrink further if they decide to marry outside the family.” Now, that is not like simply marrying another royal from somewhere in the world, as European royal families have recently done in order to ‘stay royal’ — such as Queen Elizabeth II marrying Prince Philip of the Greek royal family – but literally marrying someone from within their direct family!

The present emperor’s wife was the first commoner to marry into the imperial family, and as a man and as the emperor he of course did not lose his royal status by marrying a commoner. But for the female offspring of royalty, the choices seem limited: marry a commoner and lose status, or marry in a way which most people would consider very odd, to say the least. All of this is not to say that the practices of the British royal family are all fresh and with the times, far from it, but Japan’s imperial family lags even further behind, with male succession still being the only possibility.

Conservative Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is against the idea of many reforms for women of the royal household, other than the possibility that if they marry commoners they might still maintain some official, civil servant type roles. Let’s not expect an empress of Japan any time soon.

Image Credit: Thinkstock

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John is a freelance writer from the UK, currently living in Japan and thoroughly enjoying their food and whiskey. His first novel, Three Little Boys, and his travel book, Following Football, are currently available on

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