Emperor Naruhito’s visit, the selfie and the future of sultan’s daughter

The writer writes about differences in selfie culture, which is taboo within the Japanese royal family but is common practice among many Indonesians, including President Jokowi.

Kornelius Purba

Kornelius Purba

The Jakarta Post


Emperor Naruhito (left) waves to journalists from inside a train at Lebak Bulus MRT Station in South Jakarta on June 18, 2023. The emperor is on a week-long visit to Indonesia, his first since his coronation in 2019. (Courtesy/of PT MRT Jakarta)

June 19, 2023

JAKARTA – There are at least two things that attract my curiosity from the week-long goodwill visit of Japanese Emperor Naruhito and Empress Masako, who arrived on Saturday. First is their meeting and luncheon with President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo and First Lady Iriana, and second is their encounter with Yogyakarta Sultan Hamengkubuwono X in Yogyakarta.

My concerns have nothing to do with security matters or the substance of the Emperor’s conversations with the President and the Yogyakarta Sultan, but the selfie culture, which is taboo within the Japanese royal family but is common practice among many Indonesians, including President Jokowi.

The other interesting issue is the similarity between the Emperor and the Yogyakarta Sultan, who both do not have a son. The emperor has one daughter, while the Yogyakarta ruler has five.

On Sunday, the Emperor visited the terminus of Japan’s financed and constructed Jakarta Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) in Lebak Bulus, South Jakarta. The MRT is the symbol of not only Japan’s superiority in technology but also its culture of comfort, punctuality and discipline. 

Since the MRT began to be fully operational, Indonesian passengers have become used to queuing and maintaining cleanliness in commuter trains. In the next few years, Japan will finish constructing the north-south MRT line that will connect the Kota (old town) area in North Jakarta with Lebak Bulus.

On Monday, President Jokowi and First Lady Iriana will host a luncheon with the Japanese royal couple at Bogor Palace. According to Antara, later in the evening the Emperor will meet with prominent Indonesian figures who have built a strong connection to Japan.

On Tuesday, the Emperor and Empress will visit the Kalibata Heroes Cemetery in South Jakarta, where 28 former Japanese soldiers were buried. They were named national heroes, having fought for Indonesia’s independence following the defeat of Japan in World War II in August 1945. During the war, Japan occupied Indonesia for more than three years.

On the same day, the Japanese guests will also visit the private Darma Persada University in East Jakarta, which is known for its strong link with Japan and was often visited by Japanese VVIP guests, such as the prime minister. I think the visits alone are not enough. Japan should do more to help the university rise to a higher level.

Emperor Naruhito is scheduled to meet Sultan Hamengkubuwono X in Yogyakarta on Wednesday.

The Japanese daily Asahi reported last week that the biggest concern of Japanese government officials during the emperor’s visit to Indonesia was, “What should we do if someone tries to take a commemorative photo with the Emperor and Empress by taking a selfie?”

According to the newspaper’s Jakarta correspondent, Handa, who wrote the report, many Indonesian people love taking commemorative photos. Some experts even describe it as a “national custom”.

It is common to see President Jokowi taking selfies with citizens on his smartphone during domestic visits, she wrote. Conversely, it is also quite common for citizens to suddenly ask him to take a selfie, which he often agrees to with a smile.

When I asked about the selfie issue of the Japanese Ambassador to Indonesia, Kanasugi Kenji, he refrained from giving a direct answer. Still, I concluded that the selfie issue was a headache for Japanese officials because prohibiting selfies can be perceived as a show of arrogance.

Whether President Jokowi will take selfies with his Japanese distinguished guests is therefore a sensitive issue.

While the Emperor continues his trip to Yogyakarta, the Empress will stay in Jakarta. Apart from his visit to the sultanate city, the Emperor will also visit Borobudur temple in Magelang, Central Java.

People often compare Yogyakarta, a former Indonesian capital, to Kyoto, the old capital city of Japan. While comparing the Emperor and the Sultan does not work, they share one thing in common: Succession.

It is not easy for them to change centuries-old traditions that allow only direct male-line males to ascend the throne. I personally hope during their conversation they will share their feelings and support each other to accept the reality for the good of their nations and traditions.

Emperor Naruhito’s daughter, Princess Aiko, who was born in 2001, will never become his successor, in accordance with Japanese imperial law. So, the next emperor will be Crown Prince Akishino, who has a son, Prince Hisahito.

Sultan Hamengkubuwono X and his wife Queen Hemas have five daughters and no sons. They are GKR (Married Princess) Mangkubumi, GKR Condrokirono, GKR Maduretno, GKR Hayu and GKR Bendara. 

Law No. 13/2012 on the Yogyakarta Special Region allocates the gubernatorial post to the sultan to acknowledge the sultanate’s exceptional role during Indonesia’s independence struggle. Article 18 of the law indicates support for the royal tradition, which says the throne of the Yogyakarta sultanate is only for married men. The article states that the sultan must submit a CV that contains, among others, identities of his wife and children, prior to his appointment as governor.

In 2015, the sultan issued Sabda Raja (the Word of King), which changed the title of the eldest daughter, indicating she would be the crown princess.

In 2017, the Constitutional Court ruled in favor of a judicial review petition challenging the 2012 law on Yogyakarta’s special status, which scraps the patriarchal domination in the Yogyakarta sultanate. The court’s decision means Hamengkubuwono X’s eldest daughter stands a great chance of succeeding him as leader of the sultanate and the city, despite opposition from his siblings.

Emperor Naruhito and Empress Masako will leave Indonesia on Friday. On board the official aircraft, the couple may share their funny experiences in dealing with the selfie culture.

But with or without selfies, the Indonesian people are happy with their visit. The Empress is especially popular here because of her sacrifice of abandoning her career as a diplomat to marry the crown prince in 1993.


 The writer is senior editor at The Jakarta Post.

scroll to top