A popular meme says the teachers in Japan don't have to bow in front of the Emperor and that's because without teachers there would be no emperor.
Since my understanding of the whole bowing system in Japan is that it's not something required by law, but it's just a way to show respect; no one in Japan HAS to bow in front of anyone. So I interpret it to mean "If a teacher does not bow in front of the Emperor, it is not being rude; it's a custom."

Is this a real custom?


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    I looked around the Internet with keywords 教師 天皇 辞儀 (teacher, emperor, bow), and there are some blog posts by Japanese people having heard something like that from foreigners and wondering themselves if it was true. Several answers emerged: - it could be a common expression or parable remarking on how respected teachers are in Japan - as per the comment above, it marks teachers as left wing because they refuse to sing the national anthem - it might be true, and the easiest way to get an authoritative answer would be to contact the imperial household agency kunaicho.go.jp So a cursor
    – user29498
    Oct 21, 2015 at 11:25
  • There is a very similar rumor about stonemasons. skeptics.stackexchange.com/questions/38470/…
    – Jonathon
    May 26, 2017 at 14:21

2 Answers 2


Essentially the opposite of the claim is true.

According to Japan: Between Myth and Reality by Khoon Choy Lee, Singapore ambassador to Japan, writing of his experience as a teacher in Japanese occupied Malaysia at page 19:

My contact with Emperor Hirohito was more of a spiritual one. Every morning, students and teachers had to bow to the East, towards the direction of the Emperor's throne.

See also: A Japanese Village:

School-children, and teachers must bow to the Emperor's portrait on entering and leaving the auditorium containing it as well as on entering and leaving

Also Education in Japan, 1945-1963, page 24, says:

with great reverence and teachers and students alike would bow worshipfully before a portrait of the Emperor

Concerning an earlier time period, see Emperor of Japan: Meiji and His World, 1852-1912 which at page 440 which explains:

Uchimura Kanzo (1861-1930), a teacher in a high middle school, was asked (along with the other teachers and students) to bow before the imperial signature

At first Kanzo refused to bow, but he was eventually persuaded by the principal to bow.

Similarly, in The Church at Home and Abroad, Volume 12 (September 1892):

The Imperial edict, or the Emperor's picture, was hung up, and the students were required to bow before it. One of the teachers in the school preparatory to the University, on conscientious grounds, refrained from doing this. His action raised a storm of indignation, and he was dismissed

The source goes on to explain that a newspaper was forced to close (but reopened under a different name) because the editor discussed the issue.

In conclusion, teachers have been forced to bow to the emperor, pictures of the emperor and signature of the emperor.

Emperor Hirohito expected everyone to bow to him. After he died in 1989, Akihito became Emperor and bowing was no longer necessary for anyone, as explained in the 26 August 1990 New York Times article "Japan's Imperial Present".

Since becoming Emperor, he has established an informal style, stooping, for example, to shake hands with children and the handicapped, in contrast to his father, who expected everyone to bow to him.

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    The claim seems pretty clearly to be about present-day custom. Modern Japan is a very different place from what it was a hundred years ago, which is the period the last two references in this answer refer to, so I'm not sure if they apply. Mar 15, 2016 at 15:24
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    The quoted text from the first reference is describing something the author observed around 1950 ("... 49 years ago, that I first came to know about Emperor Hirohito...", and the book is copyright 1995), so it is also probably not reflective of modern culture. Mar 15, 2016 at 15:32
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    @iamnotmaynard I thought the term "custom" requires that the behavior have a substantial history. For example, gay marriage occurs in the USA, but it is not a "custom".
    – DavePhD
    Mar 15, 2016 at 15:34
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    Regardless of whether and how long a practice needs to be established in order to be considered a "custom", if it is not currently practiced, it can hardly be called a custom. Mar 15, 2016 at 15:53
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    @iamnotmaynard I'm not saying teachers being forced to bow is a current custom. Instead I'm saying that considering teachers were forced to bow in the 1890 to a least WWII time period, there is no customary exception for teachers.
    – DavePhD
    Mar 15, 2016 at 16:02

Because this doesn't have an actual answer yet...

The other answer, which describes this claim as the opposite of the truth, was true before 1945. In the post-1945 liberal democracy, nobody in Japan is forcibly required to bow to anyone. This would violate Article 21 of the Japanese Constitution.

In 2003, the Japanese government passed a law requiring teachers to stand for the national anthem, as sitting down implies disrespect to the state. This in itself has engendered years of mass protest in the Osaka region especially. I can't imagine what would happen if people were legally required to bow.

The current Emperor is known for touring around the country. He visits many places and talks with many different people, and gets there by taking ordinary streets. I myself have accidentally crossed paths with his car twice. It would be quite a hassle if people were formally require to bow to him as he passed, let alone legally required.

The claim that everyone is required to bow to the Emperor besides teachers is a pure myth.

edit: For the purposes of illustration, here is a totally gratuitous photo: this shows an incident in 1951 where the students of Kyoto University posted a signboard outside their campus when Emperor Showa (Hirohito) came to visit, directly accusing His Majesty of murdering their peers in World War II and asking him to answer for his crimes. The children (or adopted orphans) of some students also participated in the protest. This is totally legal under the postwar constitution.

enter image description here

  • This answer is mistaken. 2 May 1956 Education Minister Ichiro Kiyose stated, "It is perfectly all right for schools to make their students bow toward the direction of the Emperor's palace on national holidays". He specifically stated that this could be done despite the constitution. books.google.com/…
    – DavePhD
    May 26, 2017 at 16:04
  • As further evidence, see "...direction of the Emperor's Palace on national holidays. In so doing, the Minister of Education obviously ignored a regulation dated May 14, 1947, which forbids bowing toward the Imperial Palace and shouting three cheers (banzai) for the Emperor" books.google.com/…
    – DavePhD
    May 26, 2017 at 16:14
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    @DavePhD: there are two definitions of "required" in play here. This answer refers to an inherent legal obligation. Yours is more broad.
    – Yorik
    May 26, 2017 at 18:05
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    @DavePhD: The Japanese Supreme Court has interpretative authority, not the Educational Minister. By my reasoning, illegal coercion of behavior is a custom (as I stated) rather than a legal requirement (Avery's position). Avery is not mistaken, as I said. You seem to insist on misconstruing my very simple and clear statements.
    – Yorik
    May 26, 2017 at 18:19
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    @DavePhD: And the actual claim says the only citizens who who do not have to bow. As I clearly stated above, your answer is regards to customs, Avery's answer is in regards to obligations. Honestly your last comment is looking like rent-seeking for your own answer, I never once impugned your answer nor said that Avery's is the preferred one. Simply: Avery is Not Wrong (tm)
    – Yorik
    May 26, 2017 at 18:26

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