Comparison of the Status of the Monarch’s Speech in Parliament between the UK and Japan


Both the United Kingdom and Japan have had a constitutional monarchy for a long period of history. The monarch acts as the “head of state”, and many royal prerogatives have been removed by Parliament and the cabinet under each country’s constitution in recent years. However, the monarchs of both countries still have an important constitutional role. Due to the fact that the UK and Japan are island countries which have a constitutional monarchy system, these systems have characteristics which are shared and are therefore worthy of comparison. In this essay, as an example of the monarch’s importance in state action, the status of the monarch’s speech in the UK and Japanese Parliaments will be compared. Delivering the speech in Parliament is perceived to be more a symbolic act, and not the central function of each monarch. However, in both countries, such a symbolic ceremony has been under scrutiny by the media and has been discussed by each government meaning that this topic is pertinent for discussion.

Firstly, the characteristics of both monarchs’ speeches in the Parliaments will be explained, followed by an examination of the current debate surrounding these speeches. Especially it will be considered what scope the respective monarchs have for placing their own emotions into their speeches. In addition, whether the monarch’s speech in Parliament is necessary in modern society will also be discussed. Finally, as a conclusion, future possibilities for the monarchs’ speeches to Parliament will be considered.

2. The Queen’s speech

(1) What is the Queen’s speech in the Parliament?

Queen Elizabeth II, the monarch of the UK, delivers a speech at the opening of the UK Parliament. The Queen’s speech is a tradition and it forms one of her formal duties. The speech which the Queen reads in Parliament is written and agreed upon by the Prime Minister, and it contains an outline of the government’s policies and its legislative programme in Parliament.[1] Usually, the monarch cannot express any individual feelings, or any personal opinions about the contents of the speech.

(2) Why it is delivered by the Queen?

The Queen delivers her speech in the Lords chamber[2] at the opening of each Parliament (the State Opening) as she is the figure ultimately responsible for summoning Parliament. It is one of the Royal Prerogatives[3] as “head of the legislature.” According to Alder, the Royal Prerogative is “the residue of special powers, rights and immunities vested in the Crown under the common law.”[4] The major Royal Prerogatives are regulated by the constitutional conventions[5], and the speech in Parliament is one of these conventions. Most recently, on 25th May 2010 shortly after the last general election, the Queen delivered her speech in Parliament. The Queen raised the name of 23 bills proposed by the current coalition government, and briefly explained the coalition government’s economic policy, among other things. Her speech lasted approximately 8 minutes. Since the current coalition government’s initial legislative programme was 18 months in length, there was no Queen’s speech in 2011. This seems to be rare exception. According to Parliament’s website[6] the Queen will deliver her next Parliamentary speech on 9th May 2012 and it will return to an annual event thereafter, in parallel with the Japanese Parliament.

(3) The differences with other speeches – Commonwealth day and Christmas day speech

Unlike the Queen’s speech in Parliament, there are speeches for which the Queen does not need the Prime Minister’s advice. These are the Queen’s Christmas speech and Commonwealth day speech.

The Queen traditionally delivers televised speeches to the Commonwealth on Christmas day and Commonwealth day[7] as Head of the Commonwealth every year. When the Queen gives these speeches, there is no constitutional requirement for ministerial advice. However, “as a matter of courtesy”[8] the speeches are shown to the Prime Minister before the Queen delivers them. Fifty per cent of the content and topics covered in the speeches are prepared by the Queen herself.[9] These two kinds of speeches, without ministerial responsibility, can be regarded as a constitutional convention.[10] For example, in her most recent 2011 Christmas day TV speech, the Queen referred to her trip to Australia during that year and the economic challenges facing the world as her two central topics. Additionally, she claimed that “we have seen that it is in hardship that we often find strength from our families; it is in adversity that new friendships are sometimes formed; and it is in a crisis that communities break down barriers and bind together to help one another”[11], demonstrating the more personal nature of the Queen’s Christmas day message.

3. Japanese Emperor’s OKOTOBA in Parliament

(1) What is OKOTOBA?

OKOTOBA is the speech for both the senators and representatives by the Emperor as the constitutional monarch[12] at the opening ceremony of the Japanese Parliament.[13] Unlike the Queen’s speech in the UK Parliament, the Japanese Emperor delivers quite a short[14] greeting speech in the opening ceremony of the Parliament as an OKOTOBA. After the Emperor’s OKOTOBA is given, the Prime Minister gives a speech referring to government policies and political matters. It has been a constitutional convention for 120 years since the first modern Japanese constitution, the MEIJI constitution, was established and the parliamentary system began. The Emperor delivers the OKOTOBA at the opening ceremony of each Parliament, not only at the Parliament following a general election.[15] The Emperor usually prepares drafts of speeches for other events, such as important sports competitions, by himself. However, the draft of OKOTOBA is decided and prepared by the Cabinet after consulting the Imperial Household Agency.[16] 

(2) Why it is delivered by the Emperor?

The Emperor convokes the Parliament as one of his “acts in matters of state” (KOKUJI KOUI)[17], and OKOTOBA is a secondary act which is consistent with those acts of state in Japanese constitutional conventions.[18] Such a deputy act lies somewhere between the Emperor’s acts in matters of state and his “private acts” (SHITEKI KOUI) and is labeled as “public acts” (KOUTEKI KOUI) .[19] According to article 4 of the Constitution of Japan, “the Emperor shall perform only such acts in matters of state as are provided for in this Constitution and he shall not have powers related to government”.[20] Prior to and during World War II the Emperor was used as a political figure by the Japanese military to govern and legitimise their war but Japan’s wartime failures led to a revision of his status and the Emperor became a non-political figure after the conflict. OKOTOBA is related to this background and therefore the speech does not include any political matters or text.[21]

4. Constitutional and Critical view

Current discussion about the monarch’s speech in Parliament in both the UK and Japan can be summed up by two questions. Firstly, by whom should the monarch’s speech in Parliament be written? Secondly, is the monarch’s speech in Parliament necessary in modern society?

(1)By whom should the monarchs’ speech to Parliament be written?

As noted above, the monarch’s speech in Parliament is written by the cabinet, and not by the monarch himself or herself in both the UK and Japan in deference to constitutional conventions.

However, even though there are some constitutional limits, is it not peculiar that the speaker cannot write his or her own draft speech? There has been such a discussion in Japan. This debate has recently increased since the new centre-left government was established by the Democratic Party of Japan in 2009 and it has occurred simultaneously with the various reforms made to Japan’s political and constitutional systems.

At the ministers’ meeting on October 23rd 2009, Katsuya Okada, the foreign minister of the Japanese government at the time and the current Deputy Prime Minister, asked to put “his majesty’s feeling and emotion into the OKOTOBA.”[22] Okada has constantly criticised the words in the OKOTOBA as being nearly always the same[23], and has insisted many times that “the OKOTOBA (words) must not be bureaucratic words, but be his majesty’s OKOTOBA.”[24] It was quite an “extraordinary case”[25] that one of the ministers had asked for a reform of the matter of advice and approval to the Emperor by the cabinet. Many politicians and the media were opposed to this opinion and criticised him by claiming that “he used the Emperor as political purpose.”[26]

Despite these criticisms of Mr. Okada’s approach, he has still complained that “there is a certain limit on OKOTOBA, however, it does not mean that the same words and sentences should be repeated in every OKOTOBA at each opening ceremony of Parliament.”[27]

These incidents have triggered greater interest in the Emperor’s speech in Parliament among the Japanese people who have begun to question its constitutional purpose while similar discussions have also been initiated in the UK.

Although regal, the Emperor is also a member of the nation; therefore, he has freedom of expression as a natural human right. However, due to his constitutional position, he will be justly restricted in his human rights. In addition, under the constitutional monarchy system, it is commonly believed that the Emperor must not touch on or exhibit his own political views publicly. Therefore, even though the style of the monarch’s speech in Parliament may change, it is difficult to see how this basic rule can be adapted. If it is reformed in line with Mr. Okada’s suggestion, the monarchy will face a dangerous crisis to its existence. In fact, after Mr. Okada gave his opinion about the speech, Yukio Hatoyama, the Prime Minister of Japan at the time, criticised him[28] and generally ignored his comments. Even the most recent Emperor’s speech in the 180th Parliament on January 24th  2012 was delivered using quite ordinary and similar sentences as in previous speeches.[29]

(2)Is the monarch’s speech in Parliament necessary in modern society?

In answering whether the monarch’s speech to Parliament is needed in 21st century society, the Fabian Society, a prominent UK political organisation and think-tank, offered an opinion in their report, The Future of the Monarchy. This paper suggests various plans for reforming the monarchy to make it more appropriate for modern British society.

According to the report, the Fabian Society suggests that reform is needed in “both the form and frequency of the State Opening Ceremony.”[30] For example, it suggests “the legislative programme should be presented at a separate session by the Prime Minister and should be debated in accordance with normal parliamentary procedure.”[31] However the reason given for this is in the report is quite unclear and it is submitted that the Fabian Society should have given a clear, objective reason for this proposal, for example financial costs or the need to divorce the Queen from duties which are inherently political in nature.

Secondly, the Fabian Society announces that “the Queen’s speech should be replaced by an address by the Head of State relevant to the occasion of the opening of a new democratic Parliament.”[32] In other words, the Fabian Society seems to advocate a change in the style of Queen’s speech similar to that of the Christmas speech.

If this were to occur, it would mean there would be no requirement for the Prime Minister to take any responsibility for the speech. The Queen would be able to put as much of her own opinion as she desired into her draft speech to Parliament. Of course, as a convention, the Queen has always shown the drafts of her Christmas speech to the Prime Minister and it is therefore unlikely that she would be able to express any opinion contrary to the Prime Minister’s advice, even if such a reform were realised. However, the scope of discretion to decide her drafts will clearly expand. The proposals for reform here are in marked reform to those suggested by the Fabian Society who urge a decrease in the opportunities for the monarch to touch upon political topics, and advocate limiting the freedom of the monarch’s discretion on all such occasions. In fact in the future it is conceivable that the style of the Queen’s Christmas speech will change in line with the Fabian Proposals. This would undoubtedly narrow the monarch’s Personal Prerogative further if it were to become similar to the Queen’s speech at the opening of the Parliament and adhere to the convention of ministerial responsibility.[33]

As a further reform plan, in The Governance of Britain, the former Brown Labour government suggests that “the government will introduce a pre-Queen’s speech consultative process on its legislative programme.”[34] This is clearly less radical than the Fabian Society’s proposals but it would help preserve the institution of the monarch’s speech whilst making the government more accountable. Consequently the Queen’s speech would become more suitable for modern society.


“To protect and elevate the institution of Monarchy”[35], it is vital that each monarch must be prohibited from touching political matters as much as possible. Therefore the preparation and contents of their speech in Parliament must remain under ministerial responsibility for the future.

Why does the monarch’s speech in Parliament need ministerial advice? It is because, as Blackburn correctly points out, “if the minister is always responsible, then no blame or criticism may be laid against the Sovereign so as to lower the esteem in which she is held in the country.” [36] The situation is the same in the UK and Japan. In these aspects, the style of the monarch’s speech in Parliament seems not to require any drastic reform.

In addition, the monarch’s speech in Parliament is entirely traditional. However, it should not be viewed as “a museum.”[37] Based on such a theory which is reflected in the words of the Fabian Society, many ceremonies by the monarch might be considered outdated. The Fabian Society seems to confuse the meaning of the word ‘tradition’ and the phrase ‘old fashioned’. It is desirable to maintain the traditional and symbolic value of the monarch’s speech in Parliament. However, modern times require that the activities of Parliament shall run smoothly, free from unnecessarily lavish rituals and state ceremonies. Therefore the monarch’s speech in Parliament should not be modified into a political statement that expands the monarch’s Personal Prerogative, but rather an address similar to the Christmas Day message which is more akin to both the Queen and Emperor’s constitutional role in modern society.

Narutoshi  Yoshida

MPhil/PhD Candidate, King’s College London

[1] See Vincenzi, C., Crown Powers, Subjects and Citizens, Pinter, first edition, 1998, p.76.

[2] See King, A., The British Constitution, Oxford University Press, first edition, 2007, p.4.

[3] See Glendon,M.A., Carozza, P.G., Picker,C.B., Comparative Legal Traditions, Thomson West, third edition, 2007, p.636.

[4] Alder,J., General Principles of Constitutional and Administrative Law, Palgrave Macmillan, fourth edition, 2002, p.299.

[5] See Carrol, A., Constitutional and Administrative Law, Pearson Education Limited, fourth edition, 2007, p.247.

[6]See The UK Parliament, State Opening of Parliament, (04/04/2012)

[7] The Commonwealth day is on the second Monday in March.

[8] Blackburn, R., King and Country, Politico’s Publishing Ltd, first edition, 2006, p.11.

[9] Ibid. and Blackburn, R., “The Queen and Ministerial Responsibility”, Public Law, 1985, p.361.

[10] Ibid., p.366.

[11] Queen’s Christmas Speech Archives, Queen’s Christmas Message 2011, (04/04/2012).

[12] The article 1 in the Constitution of Japan. Refer to The Ministry of Justice Japan, Japanese Law Translation,, (04/04/2012). This English translation version is the official translation of the Constitution of Japan by Japanese government.

[13] See Kobayashi, S., Sonoda, Y., Constitution, Nansousha, revised edition, 2009, p.77.

[14] OKOTOBA has delivered usually for 2 minutes. See Yomiuri Shinbun, 24October 2009.

[15] See Asahi Shinbun, 24 October 2009.

[16] See Asahi Shinbun, 27October 2009.

[17] The Emperor’s acts in matters of state are regulated by the article 7 in the Constitution of Japan. Supra, note 12.

[18] Supra, note 13.

[19] Ibid.

[20] The article 4 in the Constitution of Japan. Supra note 12.

[21] See “Shinbun Hushin”, Shukan Bunshun (Weekly Bunshun), Bungei Shunjyu, 5th,Nov.,2009, p.48.

[22] Supra, note 14.

[23] OKOTOBA was changed only once at the opening ceremony of the 132th Parliament on January 1995, after the Hanshin earthquake which killed and destroyed tremendous amount of people and buildings. The Emperor talked about the earthquake in that OKOTOBA. See Sankei Shinbun,24October 2009.

[24] Supra, note 21.

[25] Supra, note 14.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Supra, note 24.

[28] Supra, note 16.

[29] The Imperial Household Agency, OKOTOBA 2012, (04/04/2012)

[30] The Fabian Commission on the Future of the Monarchy, The Future of the Monarchy, Fabian Society, first edition, 2003, p.59.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Supra, note 9, pp.367-368.

[34] The Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor, The Governance of Britain,CM7170, 2007, p.7.

[35] Supra, note 9, p.364.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Supra, note 15.

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