Bonsai trees and a royal birthday: Japan’s imperial family dips a careful toe in world of Instagram

Bonsai trees and a royal birthday: Japan’s imperial family dips a careful toe in world of Instagram

The rarefied world of Japan’s imperial family has entered the age of social media, but fans expecting selfies, emojis and casual shots of the emperor and empress, or princes and princesses away from the limelight may be disappointed.

Far from photographs of sunrises, sunsets or moments of mindfulness that form the stock in trade of many Instagram profiles, the initial images released followed a steady course favoured by other royal families around the world. They featured a dignified attendance at a medical awards ceremony, a bonsai exhibition and a meeting with the president and first lady of Kenya. Another post features them with the crown prince and princess of Brunei.

One video clip shows a 64th birthday gathering, but rather than intimate footage of family singing around a cake, it features large crowds waving hinomaru Japanese flags outside the imperial palace while Emperor Naruhito waves from the balcony.

Some 19 images were put up by the Imperial Household Agency (IHA) on day one of the social media journey of the world’s oldest continual hereditary monarchy, including images of Emperor Naruhito, Empress Masako and their daughter, Princess Aiko during engagements from the first three months of the year.

Some of the account’s 160,000 followers may have been disappointed by the lack of meme-worthy content, indeed some of the images, including one of Naruhito attending the opening of parliament in January, are already in the public domain.

“The IHA is on Instagram! I thought it was an April Fools’ prank!” one X user wrote.

Another said: “When I heard the IHA created an Instagram account, I quickly checked it out. But of course the emperor wouldn’t post ‘today’s lunch (heart emoji)’ or anything like that.”

Some users joked it was good the royals had chosen the more “civilised” Instagram over X, formerly Twitter.

While it has yet to follow anyone on Instagram, the household agency said it would consider proposals from other monarchies to link up on social media, according to Japanese media.

The unprecedented use of social media does, however, mark a shift in the agency’s careful management of the family’s senior members, thought to have been triggered in part by negative media coverage of the then Princess Mako’s controversial marriage to a non-royal in 2021.

The agency often struggled to respond to online criticism of the couple – a shortcoming that prompted the creation last year of a new public relations office to share more news and information about the imperial family, particularly with younger people.

Mako’s marriage to her former university classmate Kei Komuro was delayed after the princess’s parents, Crown Prince Akishino – the current emperor’s younger brother – and Crown Princess Kiko, said it could not go ahead until her fiancé’s mother had resolved a financial scandal.

The princess, who is now known as Mako Komuro, and her husband live in New York, where he practises law and she is doing volunteer work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Like all female members of the imperial family who marry a “commoner”, Mako lost her royal status and reportedly turned down a one-off payment of about $1m (£791,000) of taxpayers’ money that is traditionally given to women who renounce their royal status when they marry.

The IHA is also considering expanding its social media presence by opening accounts on Facebook and X that could include images of the crown prince and princess and other members of the family.

For now, however, the online window into the Chrysanthemum throne – which, according to legend, dates back 2,600 years – will differ little from the agency’s website, with a strong focus on the public lives of working family members.

The agency’s press office is responsible for selecting and posting Instagram photos – and moderating comments – and there are no plans for individual members of the imperial family to upload their own images, the Asahi Shimbun said.