Connect with us


Royal Exchanges: The Japanese Imperial Family in the United Kingdom

Crown Prince Fumihito's presence at King Charles' coronation symbolizes the enduring bond between the Japanese Imperial Family and the British Royal Family.



Crown Prince Fumihito and Crown Princess Kiko chat with King Charles III at a reception held at Buckingham Palace in London on May 5. (Provided by the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office of the UK via Kyodo)

Crown Prince Fumihito, representing Emperor Naruhito, attended the coronation of King Charles III at Westminster Abbey in London on May 6, accompanied by his wife Crown Princess Kiko. Since the Meiji era (1868-1912), Japanese Imperial Family members have attended the coronation of British monarchs. 

Prince Fumihito's visit follows the precedent set by Prince Yasuhito, who attended the coronation of King George VI before World War II as the representative of his older brother Emperor Hirohito. The current Emperor Emeritus Akihito was not yet crown prince at the time.

It is often the case that Japan thrives whenever Anglo-Japanese relations are strong. Recent years have witnessed the significance of this relationship with the United Kingdom, which is being increasingly recognized as an important contribution to global stability.

It is hoped that Prince Fumihito's visit to the United Kingdom marks the beginning of a new era for the next generations of the Imperial Family and the British Royal Family.

Crown Prince Fumihito and Crown Princess Kiko on the way to the coronation of King Charles III on May 6 in London. (© Kyodo)

Scars from the War

The Imperial Family's postwar efforts to foster international goodwill took root when the 19-year-old Crown Prince Akihito, who would later ascend to the throne as Emperor, attended the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. This significant event occurred eight years after the end of World War II.

Emperor Emeritus Akihito, who was then Crown Prince, (fourth from the left in the front row) attends the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II at Westminster Abbey in London, June 1953 (© Kyodo)

But in the early days after the war, a considerable rift, perhaps difficult to picture in the present day, persisted between the Japanese and the British.

During the Naval Battle of Malaya, the Japanese Imperial forces sank the British battleship Prince of Wales and the cruiser Repulse. The campaign resulted in the capture of numerous British soldiers and the subsequent fall of British territories such as Hong Kong and Singapore.

At the time of Crown Prince Akihito's arrival in the UK, anti-Japan sentiment was widespread. According to the Daily Express, a British national daily, 68% of respondents were opposed to his presence at the coronation.

Despite these circumstances, Queen Elizabeth II, who was 27 years old, extended a warm welcome to the Japanese Crown Prince. Her gesture was instrumental in initiating the reconciliation between Japan and the UK.


Postwar Healing

When Emperor Hirohito visited the UK in 1971, anti-Japan sentiment still lingered. Notably, a coat was thrown at the Emperor's carriage procession to the palace. 

On his previous visit as Crown Prince, he had been warmly welcomed as a partner in the Anglo-Japanese alliance. However, circumstances had changed by the time of his subsequent trip.

Queen Elizabeth shares a toast with Emperor Hirohito at a banquet at the Imperial Palace in May 1975.

Nevertheless, the British royal family continued to treat Emperor Hirohito with the same respect as they did half a century earlier. At the state banquet, Queen Elizabeth II expressed her commitment to Anglo-Japanese reconciliation, believing that his visit to Britain would mark the end of unfortunate wartime memories.

In 1975, the Japanese people came together to welcome Queen Elizabeth II, showcasing the reconciliation between the two countries to the world. 

Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip near Hibiya Park, Tokyo, in May 1975.

When asked about the most memorable part of her visit, Queen Elizabeth is said to have swiftly replied that it was meeting Emperor Hirohito and receiving his counsel. She reportedly also stated that only the Emperor, with his fifty-year reign, could truly grasp the solitary role of a monarch who had to make critical decisions for the people. The Queen remained humble toward the Imperial Family throughout her life.

Their majesties, now the Emperor Emeritus and Empress Emerita of Japan, with Queen Elizabeth in May 1998 at Buckingham Palace. (© Kyodo)

Fostering International Goodwill

But even half a century after World War II, anti-Japan sentiment remained in Britain. During Emperor Akihito's visit in 1998, there were protests over the issue of former prisoners of war (POWs). Some deliberately turned away from his carriage procession or burned small Japanese flags. 

But Queen Elizabeth graciously welcomed Emperor Akihito and Empress Masako, soothing anti-Japan sentiments. The Imperial couple also expressed their understanding and acceptance of the feelings of the British people.

During the state banquet, Emperor Akihito expressed, "When I reflect upon the suffering endured by the people as a result of the war, I feel a profound sorrow in my heart." Initially, the British media extensively covered the prisoner of war (POW) issue, but as news about the Queen's interaction with the Imperial couple spread, the critical tone gradually subsided.

Over the course of half a century, the Japanese Imperial Family and the British Royal Family have worked diligently to mend the relationship between the two countries. Queen Elizabeth treated the Japanese Imperial Family with heartfelt hospitality, while Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko cherished the sentiments of the British people. This unwavering dedication from both families has led to genuine reconciliation between the two countries, forming the foundation of the current Anglo-Japanese relationship.

Emperor Emeritus Akihito and Empress Emeritus Michiko greet Prince Charles III and Princess Diana. Prince Fumihito is at the far right. (Pool photo)

Enduring Bonds

In 2012, Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko attended the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II's reign. It was the last time they saw the Queen.

When Japan entered the Reiwa era, Queen Elizabeth invited Emperor Emeritus Akihito and Empress Emeritus Michiko to the UK. It would have been their first foreign visit in the new era. Regrettably, the trip was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the Queen passed away before they had a chance to meet again.

Emperor Naruhito and Empress Masako made a notable departure from tradition by attending the Queen's state funeral.

Then-crown prince Naruhito visits Elizabeth II and Prince Philip at Windsor Castle in 2001. (© Kyodo)

Recently, The Thames and I – a Memoir of Two Years at Oxford (1993, Gakushuin Somubu Kohoka) which chronicles Emperor Naruhito's time as a student in the United Kingdom, was republished and sparked considerable interest. Many Japanese Imperial Family members have studied in the UK, including Crown Prince Fumihito, who attended the coronation of King Charles III in May.

When Princess Catherine attended Queen Elizabeth's state funeral, she wore a four-row pearl necklace made from pearls gifted to Queen Elizabeth during her visit to Japan. The Queen often wore this necklace, as did Princess Diana.

Throughout the modern era, the Japanese Imperial Family and the British Royal Family have fostered a deep friendship and mutual trust, fortifying the bonds between Japan and the UK across the generations.

An English translation of "The Thames and I – a Memoir of Two Years at Oxford" (2006, Renaissance Books) by Emperor Naruhito.


(Read the article in Japanese.)

Author: Tsuneyasu Takeda

Our Partners