How to meet the Japanese imperial family

Empereur Japon-11

Today, Voyagista reveals her secret on where we can meet the Japanese Imperial Family …

For those not familiar with the Japanese Imperial family: today the Emperor has no political power and fills a symbolic role in Japanese society (as it has done at other times in Japan’s history). The Emperor is no longer regarded a living God (expect maybe by some radical groups) since the Americans occupied the country after World War 2 but they are still adored in some quarters, and their lives are still shrouded in a mystery of traditions formalized through the centuries. Their imperial lives are heavily regulated by these traditions and there are only rare opportunities for the general public to see the family.

Japanese emperor

The Emperor lives in the Imperial Palace in the middle of Tokyo, surrounded by a small forest and a moat that remains from the Shogun’s castle, which originally stood on the Imperial site. Some of the Imperial Gardens and surrounding open space are open to the public but the palace at the heart is not visited or even sighted easily  but on two dates these grounds are opened up for the general public: the 23rd of December is the Emperor’s birthday and January 2 is for the new year. I lived several years in Tokyo without taking advantage of this occasions but the palace was a daily part of my life as it is for many Japanese: I could see the palace grounds from my apartment balcony and my office, I skirted the palace every day on my way to work and back, and the jog around the palace was always a good way to release some energy.

Japanese imperial family

japanese imperial family

On a clear winter day in January I decided to take advantage of the opportunity to visit the Emperor. I entered through on the heavily guarded gates and took one of the Japanese flags on offer. I arrived in the courtyard of the palace, which was becoming more and more packed with Japanese eagerly anticipating a glimpse of their Imperial Family… after an anxious wait the family appeared behind the glass of their balcony.  The flags were lifted and waved with gusto and the call of “banzai’ echoed around the courtyard. A small Imperial speech, and then… voila… it was finished and everyone quietly moved out to make space for the next viewing.

japanese royal family

I am now one of the privileged few over the centuries to have a (somewhat crowded) audience with the Imperial Family – an interesting experience and no doubt the closest I will get to the Imperial Japanese inner sanctum. In fact, I felt special to have joined the locals in the admiration of this long lasting institution (after all it was rare this kind of audience before WWII) until I was brought down to earth by my Japanese friend, who claimed that participating appealed to only a small part of contemporary Japanese society… it seems they don’t have the same relationship as the British royal family enjoys currently with their subjects!

japanese imperial family

Voyagista’s tips

  • Entry on the 23 December and 2 January is from the Seimon Testubashi bridge (point 9 on the map)
  • A fun (for some) way to discover the palace is to join the multitudes of Japanese joggers running daily around the palace. The 5km loop is very popular and very beautiful (compared to the concrete jungle that surrounds it!).
  • If you can’t visit the palace on the special days, I recommend you visit the Imperial “East Gardens” open to the public: enter the Otemon Gate, exit by the Hirakawa Gate, and then go take a look at the famous and controversial Yasukuni Shrine at Kudanshita.
  • Also, you can still visit the palace by making an appointment here with the imperial agency – visits are only in Japanese and under strict conditions of enrollment.

map tokyo palace

map tokyo imperial palace

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