The Emperor’s Overseas Travels: An Insider’s View


Ikeda Tadashi

Managing director, The Kazankai Foundation; visiting professor, Ritsumeikan University. Born in 1939. Graduated from the Faculty of Law, University of Tokyo. Joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and served in posts including director general of the Asian Affairs Bureau, deputy minister, ambassador to the Netherlands, and ambassador to Brazil. Headed the Japan-Taiwan Interchange Association, Taipei Office, 2005–8. His works include Gekidō no Ajia gaikō to tomo ni (Working amid the Turbulence of Asian Diplomacy).

Emperor Akihito is scheduled to abdicate on April 30, 2019, ending a reign of more than 30 years. Over this period he and Empress Michiko have made 19 trips overseas. The fundamental purpose of such visits is to promote friendship and interchanges, but in many of the countries he visited there were also connections to the legacy of World War II, including the issues of Japan’s postwar settlements, its wartime responsibilities, and the remembrance of those who lost their lives in the war. Why has the emperor endured the heavy strains of these visits? Journalist Nojima Tsuyoshi interviews former diplomat Kōno Michikazu, who offers a behind-the-scenes look at Japan’s “imperial diplomacy.”

Visits to Four Former Foes


  When Emperor Akihito visited China in 1992, you were the director general of the Asian Affairs Bureau in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. And when the emperor paid his first visit to the Netherlands, you were on the spot as Japan’s ambassador to that country. I believe that both of these events were of special significance, as the emperor was visiting countries with which Japan fought during World War II.

IKEDA TADASHI  The emperor has visited many countries, but I believe that China and the Netherlands were of special importance in terms of settling wartime accounts. These were two of Japan’s main opponents in the war, alongside the United States and Britain.(*1)
Emperor Shōwa (Hirohito, reigned 1926–89) made official postwar visits to the latter two, but not to China or the Netherlands, so trips to these countries remained on the agenda when Emperor Akihito took the throne.


  Ever since the emperor’s visit to China, various opinions, both positive and negative, have been expressed about it. And when Chinese President Jiang Zemin visited Japan in 1998, he greatly shocked his hosts by openly criticizing Japan in connection with historical issues in the remarks he delivered at the state banquet held in his honor at the Imperial Palace.

IKEDA On the morning of his final day in the Netherlands, the emperor noted that I had done various work relating to his visit to China and asked me if I thought the visit had been a success. It is highly unusual for the emperor to ask this sort of question. I replied that I thought it was good that he made the visit, which was based on a decision by the cabinet of Prime Minister Miyazawa Kiichi.

For many years I never spoke to anybody about this conversation, but I think it is good for the public to know about it now, more than two and a half decades later, as the Heisei era [the current emperor’s reign] draws to a close, and so I decided to reveal it. I thought that President Jiang’s remarks at the 1998 state banquet were on the emperor’s mind when he asked me that question.


  The 2003 reminiscences of Qian Qichen, who was China’s foreign minister at the time of the emperor’s 1992 visit, include a passage that can be interpreted to mean that China made use of this visit for the purpose of breaking the cordon of sanctions that other countries had implemented against it following the 1989 Tiananmen incident.

IKEDA But at the time of the emperor’s visit to China, there was no disapproval of it in Western countries, and here in Japan, even if there was some discussion of safety concerns, I don’t think there were any denials of the significance of the visit. It took place in response to a long-standing invitation from the Chinese government. To be sure, what Qian Qichen wrote was inappropriate, representing a breach of diplomatic etiquette, and I felt angry when I learned of it. Of course there were presumably various evaluations of the visit within China. But it is noteworthy that a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson recently responded to a question on this topic by saying that the visit made a positive contribution to the development of China-Japan relations. The Chinese government had not previously made an official comment on this subject; the leadership probably decided that with the emperor’s abdication approaching, it was appropriate to recognize the historical significance of his visit.

(*1) ^ These enemies were known in wartime Japan collectively as ABCD, an abbreviation for American, British, Chinese, and Dutch.

The Positive Effect of the Visit to the Netherlands


  The imperial visit to the Netherlands also seems to have had a major impact as a historical milestone. The Dutch ruled what is now Indonesia as a colony for more than three centuries, and during World War II Japan incarcerated some 40,000 Dutch troops and 90,000 civilians as prisoners of war there. In addition, some Dutch women claimed to have been forced to serve as “comfort women”—prostitutes for the Japanese military. In preparing for the visit, didn’t you have a hard time dealing with local public opinion?

Photo by Takahashi Ikutomo of

IKEDA As a diplomat, I served in five different countries, as well as in Taiwan and Hong Kong. Ordinarily the assignments were for about three years, but I spent five years in the Netherlands. And for about four of those five years, preparations for the imperial visit were on my mind. The year 2000 marked the four-hundredth anniversary of exchanges between Japan and the Netherlands—the Liefde, the first Dutch ship to reach Japan, drifted ashore in Kyūshū in 1600. And the Dutch were permitted to trade with Japan through Dejima, an island in Nagasaki, even during the period of national seclusion imposed by the Tokugawa shogunate from the early seventeenth through the mid-nineteenth century, when contact with other European countries was forbidden.

As ambassador I initiated three activities in connection with this four-hundredth anniversary. The first was dialogue with organized anti-Japanese protesters. The San Francisco Peace Treaty and the 1956 bilateral protocol between the two countries(*2)settled the issue of private claims by Dutch nationals against Japan for suffering caused by agencies of the Japanese government during World War II. But some Dutch citizens who considered this agreement to be morally unacceptable had formed a group and were conducting monthly demonstrations outside the embassy, holding placards demanding the payment of compensation by Japan. Most of the protesters were in their seventies or older, and the demonstrations were not violent. Shortly after I became ambassador, I started inviting a few of the leading members of the group to come inside the embassy for tea and conversation in my office after they concluded their quiet protest activities.

The second initiative was each year to invite something over twenty of the victims to take paid trips to Japan, for which we secured budget appropriations. The program continues to this day, though its name has been changed, and I believe that some six to seven hundred people have participated. The guests stay for about ten days to two weeks, taking in various sights and meeting with Japanese people. Though this initiative is not in the public eye, it represents a steady, patient exchange program.

Third, we arranged for a Dutch nongovernmental organization to establish a confirmation panel to look at the issue of the “comfort women.” This panel concluded that there had been seventy-nine such women, and the Asian Women’s Fund provided them with compensation on the order of three million yen per person, including beds and chairs for the elderly women.

Thanks in part to these activities conducted in advance, at the time of the visit there were some small-scale demonstrations but nothing on the major scale that we had feared. And during the course of the emperor’s stay, Dutch public opinion toward Japan took a major turn for the better.

At the time I was fully prepared for the eventuality of having to resign if the visit did not go well. But after the visit, none of the major dailies in the Netherlands carried front-page stories relating to the hostilities with Japan. When I completed my tour of duty and returned to Japan in 2001, a Dutch newspaper wrote, “Ikeda accomplished the ‘mission impossible.’” On the individual level, of course, some people probably still harbor mixed feelings toward Japan, but in terms of general public sentiment, the war seems to have ceased to be an issue. In that respect I believe that the emperor’s visit was an event of great historical significance.

(*2) ^ “Protocol Between the Government of Japan and the Government of the Kingdom of the Netherlands Relating to Settlement of the Problem Concerning Certain Types of Private Claims of Netherlands Nationals”

Hopes for Visits to South Korea and Taiwan


  Officially speaking the emperor’s visits to other countries are not diplomacy, but in practice they often have diplomatic significance, and the term “imperial diplomacy” is used in connection with them. What is your feeling on this matter as someone who served for many years on the front lines of Japan’s diplomacy? Also, how do the government and the imperial family reach decisions on the destinations for the emperor’s visits?

IKEDA The emperor’s visits to other countries are not directly related to political diplomacy but are directed at building friendship and goodwill on a broad basis. But for both Japan and the countries that the emperor visits, these are official events with special weight and importance.

It is up to the government to decide on the destinations, but there are cases in which the emperor himself would like to visit a particular country should the opportunity arise, and such sentiments can be conveyed to the government in a natural manner.

For example, before I left Japan to take up my post as ambassador to the Netherlands, I was invited to a tea party in the Imperial Palace, where I was shown a letter that the emperor had received from Queen Beatrix. She wrote in detail concerning the circumstances behind her inability to attend the funeral ceremonies for Emperor Shōwa, explaining that she had wished to be present but could not because of the strength of anti-Japanese sentiment in the Netherlands. Her own thoughts about Japan were quite clear from this letter. The fact that the emperor had me read this letter was a clear indication to me of his own interest in the Netherlands.

Of course there are various views within the government, and I believe that the basic practice in the postwar period has been for the destinations to be decided through discussions among people in the cabinet, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Imperial Household Agency.

Photo by Takahashi Ikutomo of


  It seems to me that after his 2000 visit to the Netherlands, the emperor displayed eagerness to visit locations related to the prewar and wartime periods. Previously his trips had mainly been to Western countries, but after 2000 his destinations included places like the Philippines, Saipan, Palau, and Hawaii.

IKEDA The trip to the Netherlands may be seen as having marked a turning point. One can sense that the emperor harbors special feelings about some of his trips—occasions that have something in common with his visits of consolation to the areas hard hit by the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake. For Emperor Shōwa, who had personally experienced the period of upheaval [during the war years], it was difficult to deliver explicit expressions of repentance and consolation to the souls of the victims. It seems to me that the current emperor has a clear idea of how he should act in providing consolation.


  Though the emperor has traveled to China and the Netherlands, completing the round of imperial visits to Japan’s major foes in World War II, there has still been no imperial visit to either South Korea or Taiwan, both of which were ruled by Japan as colonies. These are difficult destinations, each for its own reasons.

IKEDA I see South Korea and Taiwan as being in a completely separate category from other destinations for imperial visits. The new administration in South Korea has continued to be wary toward Japan. Under such conditions, there’s no telling what the reaction to a visit would be. If there were a fundamental shift in the situation on the Korean Peninsula, I believe sentiment toward Japan would also change, but circumstances are likely to remain difficult for some time to come. In Taiwan, meanwhile, I’m sure the emperor would receive a great welcome. But domestic and international conditions are complex, and reaching a conclusion will be far from easy. In any case, South Korea and Taiwan are of special significance, and though it will not be simple, I hope that opportunities for visits will emerge at some point in the future.

(Originally written in Japanese and published on July 20, 2018. Banner photo: Queen Beatrix sees Emperor Akihito off at Schiphol Airport as he concludes his visit to the Netherlands on May 26, 2000. © Jiji.)

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