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Japan’s Imperial Family and Britain’s Royals: A Tradition of Friendship and Understanding



Princess Kako began her studies at Leeds University in September 


Ever since the Meiji restoration in 1868, the Japanese and British governments have seen the importance of good relations between the Japanese Imperial and British Royal houses. The two governments have taken every opportunity to cement the relationship, which has played an important role in developing Japan-British understanding.


The first steps were taken in 1869, when the then-Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Alfred, a son of Queen Victoria, visited Japan and was entertained by the young Emperor Meiji at the Hama no Rikyu palace in Tokyo.


In 1881, Prince Arthur and Prince George, the Queen’s grandsons, came to Japan as midshipmen on HMS Bacchante. Prince George eventually succeeded to the throne as King George V. A royal mission led by Prince Arthur of Connaught went to Japan in 1906 to convey Britain’s highest order, that of the Garter, to the Meiji Emperor.


In 1921, King George V received the then-Japanese Crown Prince Hirohito, later the Showa Emperor, in Britain. This visit was reciprocated by the then-Prince of Wales, later briefly King Edward VIII, who made a tour of Japan.



In 1929, His Royal Highness the Duke of Gloucester was sent to Japan to confer the Order of the Garter on the Showa Emperor.


Prince Chichibu, younger brother of the Showa Emperor, in 1925 studied for some months at Magdalen College, Oxford,. He later married Sestsuko, the daughter of Tsuneo Matsudaira, Japan’s ambassador in London. The Prince and Princess Chichibu represented the Emperor at the coronation of King George VI in 1937. In due course, after the war and her husband’s death, Princess Chichibu, who was patron of the Japan British Society in Tokyo, became a favorite of members of the British Royal family.


After the war, the importance of resurrecting the relationship between the Japanese Imperial and British Royal families was recognized in London. With the blessing of Winston Churchill, once again British Prime Minister, the young Japanese Crown Prince Akihito was invited to represent Japan at the coronation of Queen Elizabeth in 1953. While there were a few difficult moments in the tour of Britain which he undertook, the Crown Prince, later the Heisei Emperor, felt an affinity with Britain which was shared by his wife Crown Princess Michiko, who had studied English literature at university.




Various visits were made to Japan by members of the British Royal family, including Prince Charles, Prince of Wales, who attended Expo ’70 in Osaka. Members of the Imperial family made various private or semi-official visits to Britain in the years up to 1971, when the Showa Emperor made the first Japanese state visit abroad. Although he visited other countries on his tour the Emperor and the Japanese government attached particular importance to the visit to Britain. Despite some protests by former British prisoners of war there can be little doubt that the visit was a success for Japan.



The state visit was followed in 1976 by a private visit by the Crown Prince and Princess to Windsor at the invitation of the Queen, and an official tour at the invitation of the British government, during which Their Imperial Highnesses made visits to Scotland and Wales. They have returned to Britain on other occasions, including their own State visit in 1998.


The Queen made her state visit to Japan in 1974 and was greeted warmly wherever she went. The Japanese public particularly appreciated her decision, despite Japanese official disapproval, to drive along the Ginza in an open car.



Against this background, it is not surprising that members of the Japanese Imperial family have chosen Britain to further their studies. The most important of these was Crown Prince Naruhito (known at the time as Hiro no Miya), who studied at Merton College, Oxford, for two years from June 1983 to October 1985.


His memoir of his time at Oxford, including an account of his historical researches, appeared in Japanese under the title Temesu to tomo ni. My English translation, The Thames and I, with a foreword by the Prince of Wales, was published in 2006 by Global Oriental.


His younger brother Prince Fumihito (Prince Akishino) followed him at Oxford in 1988-90, researching the taxonomy of fish at St. John’s College.



It had almost become a tradition for members of the Imperial family to study at Oxford University. Prince Tomohito of Mikasa, cousin of the Heisei Emperor, had, like his uncle Prince Chichibu, studied at Magdalen College, Oxford, in the 1970s.


The Oxford tradition has, however, been broken by Prince Akishino’s daughters, princesses Mako and Kako. Princess Mako, the eldest daughter, who is to marry a commoner in 2018 and will then lose her imperial status, studied English at the University of Dublin and was an exchange student at the University of Edinburgh in 2013.



She graduated from the International Christian University (ICU) in Tokyo, where she took a degree in art and cultural heritage. After that, she took up museum and gallery studies at the University of Leicester, where she received her postgraduate degree in July 2017, having done practical work at a local museum.


While at university she lived with other students in halls of residence and did not use her imperial title. She was no doubt preparing for her future life as an ordinary Japanese citizen and probably relished her freedom from the restricted life of members of the Imperial family in Tokyo.



Her younger sister Princess Kako began her studies at Leeds University in September as an exchange student from ICU, and is taking courses in performing arts and psychology. Like her sister Princess Mako, she is living as other students do at English universities in a hall of residence. She seeks to maintain her privacy and, as far as possible, prefers to remain inconspicuous.  



So far the British media have, I am glad to record, respected the wishes of the two princesses. One reason may be that British royalty provide the media here with lots of copy and photo opportunities, especially now that Prince Harry’s engagement is public. Instead of speculating on the Prince’s choice, they can concentrate on the  preparations for the wedding in May.



The Emperor is to abdicate on April 30, 2019. He has done much to preserve and enhance the imperial institution as the symbol of the nation, and we in Britain wish him a happy and long retirement. Crown Prince Naruhito has many connections with Britain and will, we are sure, be a worthy successor to the Heisei Emperor.



Sir Hugh Cortazzi served as Britain’s ambassador to Japan from 1980 to 1984, president of the Asiatic Society of Japan from 1982 to 1983, and chairman of the Japan Society of London from 1985 to 1995.




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