National

Meet, greet, but don't talk politics: How foreign dignitaries should act when visiting a Japanese emperor

by Sakura Murakami

Staff Writer

What should you do when you meet the emperor?

With visiting U.S. President Donald Trump set to meet newly crowned Emperor Naruhito on Monday, it’s a question that may cross the American leader’s mind.

Should one shake hands? Or perhaps bow?

After the rites, rituals, and regalia of an imperial succession were shown in their full glory earlier this month, when current Emperor Naruhito acceded to the Chrysanthemum Throne, it may seem like the centuries-old monarchy is ridden with quaint traditions and obscure customs.

But that’s not necessarily the case when it comes to hosting foreign guests.

A spokesperson for the Imperial Household Agency confirmed to The Japan Times that the agency does not make recommendations to foreign dignitaries on how they should greet the emperor.

There are some formalities on what kind of attire would be appropriate when meeting the emperor but no hard-and-fast rules, and the details of what the guests will wear are decided based on discussions between the parties involved.

And although the public may have a different impression, the lack of strict rules is actually a core tenet of such protocols worldwide.

“As a basic principle of protocol, making rigid rules on ‘how things should be done’ is dangerous thinking,” explained Chiyoko Teranishi, a board member of the Japan Manners and Protocol Association, who recently wrote the book “What is Protocol?”

“There are always exceptions and it is important to apply what rules there are with flexibility. Understanding local customs and different views and values is also key to receiving guests successfully,” she said.

The ways foreign dignitaries have greeted the emperor have indeed varied, and those variations have, at times, sparked media interest.

When U.S. President Barack Obama greeted Emperor Akihito in 2009, they shook hands before Obama bowed deeply at nearly a 90 degree angle. Critics in the U.S. took issue with Obama for bowing “too low.”

Trump managed to keep such criticism at bay when he met the emperor in 2017, opting instead to shake hands without bowing.

Some female dignitaries, such as Princess Chulabhorn of Thailand and the late Princess Diana of the U.K., have opted to curtsy before the emperor in the past.

However foreign guests meeting the emperor decide to greet him, the only real faux pas likely to spark outrage within Japan would be an act inconsistent with his carefully delineated role as a symbolic — rather than political — state figure.

In 2013, lawmaker Taro Yamamoto sparked controversy and outrage when he passed a letter to the emperor in person at an imperial garden party.

The letter detailed what Yamamoto believed were issues caused by the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant and radioactive fallout from the facility after the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami disasters in 2011.

The move was met with intense criticism and was perceived as an attempt to exploit the emperor for political purposes — a taboo in Japan given its wartime history.

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