Japan-Britain Ties: Emperor Naruhito’s Student Days at Oxford

Imperial Family Global Exchange Society

Recent months have seen enhanced security arrangements between Japan and Britain, including joint training exercises, aircraft development, and other activities involving Japan’s Self-Defense Forces and Britain’s armed forces. These developments point to a resurgence of the Anglo-Japanese Alliance concluded more than 100 years ago, thanks to the strong ties between the royal houses of Japan and Britain.

Student Residence Life

Both Japan and Britain are parliamentary democracies and constitutional monarchies. As symbols of national unity, Japan’s imperial family and the British royal family are popular with the publics in each nation. A highlight of the 150-year history of relations between the two royal houses was the two years abroad that Emperor Naruhito (then the Crown Prince, commonly known as Prince Hiro in Britain at the time) spent at the University of Oxford.

Beginning in June 1983, Prince Hiro lived in residence at the university, where he studied the history of transport on the River Thames. During that time, he enjoyed friendly relations with Queen Elizabeth II and other members of the British royal family. This period was the longest stay abroad by the prince. When it came time to return to Japan in October 1985, he was heard to say that he wished he could take his room at the residence back with him as a memento of his time abroad. In his 1993 memoir, Temuzu to tomo ni (trans. The Thames and I: A Memoir of Two Years at Oxford), the future emperor looked back fondly on his experiences, which he believed could not easily be described in just a few words.

Working to Make Study Abroad a Success

Confidential UK government documents concerning Prince Hiro’s two years in Britain were recently declassified and made accessible to the public by the National Archives. The documents detail the great lengths to which the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office, as it was then called, went to make the prince’s stay a success and enhance relations between the two countries.

Soon before the prince’s departure from Britain, then Prime Minister Nakasone Yasuhiro sent a letter to Margaret Thatcher, prime minister at the time, which he instructed Yamazaki Toshio, the Japanese ambassador in London, to deliver to her personally. The Foreign Office, serving as go-between, advised Thatcher’s office to acquiesce to this unusual request, and Ambassador Yamazaki ultimately presented the missive in person.

To quote from Nakasone’s letter to Thatcher, in which he expressed his gratitude: “On behalf of the Government and people of Japan, I should like to express my most sincere gratitude to you and the people of your country for the generous hospitality so kindly extended to Prince Hiro throughout his two years’ stay in Britain as a student at Oxford University. . . . His experience will be an asset of immeasurable value not only for his future, but also for the promotion of good relations between our two countries.”

Page 1 of Prime Minister Nakasone’s letter to Prime Minister Thatcher. (Courtesy of the British National Archives; photo by author)
Page 1 of Prime Minister Nakasone’s letter to Prime Minister Thatcher. (Courtesy of the British National Archives; photo by author)

Page 2 of the letter. (Courtesy of the British National Archives; photo by author)
Page 2 of the letter. (Courtesy of the British National Archives; photo by author)

In reply, Thatcher wrote: “It was a great honour to us that Prince Hiro chose our country in which to study. . . . I am glad that you consider that His Imperial Highness benefited both from his academic studies and from his personal contacts and experiences in the United Kingdom. I certainly . . . believe that his stay with us has highlighted the close and friendly relations between our two countries.”

Prime Minister Thatcher’s reply to Prime Minister Nakasone. (Courtesy of the British National Archives; photo by author)
Prime Minister Thatcher’s reply to Prime Minister Nakasone. (Courtesy of the British National Archives; photo by author)

The two leaders affirmed that Prince Hiro’s stay had helped further cement relations between their countries. In a letter to Ambassador Yamazaki on December 3, 1985, after the prince’s departure, Foreign Secretary Geoffrey Howe expressed his thanks for a vase he had received from the prince. In his letter, he also stressed that the success of the prince’s study abroad period had helped deepen ties between the two royal houses and contributed to advancing Japan-UK relations.

Foreign Secretary Howe said that he would treasure the vase he had received as a memento of the prince’s productive stay. He also expressed the belief that the prince’s time in Britain had played a valuable role in strengthening bilateral relations, and hoped that the visit of Prince Charles and Princess Diana to Japan in the following year would further deepen the two countries’ friendship.

In his letter to Thatcher, Nakasone also thanked security staff who had provided protection. His message of thanks was conveyed to Scotland Yard (the Metropolitan Police Service) Commissioner Kenneth Newman by Foreign Office Vice Secretary Antony Acland on November 12.

The Foreign Office also lauded the MPS, stating that every aspect of the prince’s years of study had been a success and would benefit the UK-Japan relationship for years to come. In its view, a successful outcome was due in large part to the positive relationship between the prince and his protection team. The MPS had placed protection officers in rooms adjacent to the those of the prince at Oxford to provide around-the-clock protection. In an interview with the Fuji Television Network, Roger Bacon, one of the officers, described Prince Hiro as a serious young man who was also sociable and liked to joke and related that he had invited the prince to a pub for a drink. In his memoir, the prince, while acknowledging that Bacon had a job to do, thanked him for showing how ordinary people lived.

Dance Partner Wanted

Among other recently released National Archives documents is a letter dated December 11, 1985, from the Foreign Office’s Far East Division to the Japanese embassy in London thanking the prince for his gift of lacquered platters and cups to three of its staff members. One of the recipients was Liz Webb, who had recently begun working at the Foreign Office. She had been chosen to accompany the prince, who was solo, to a postgraduation dance in early summer that year.

Webb, who was already an acquaintance of the prince, filed a report with her Foreign Office superiors on how the evening went. The contents of that report have never been made public, and neither did the prince mention the evening in his memoir.

In an essay published by the Japan National Press Club, Yamaki Hiroyuki, who had been the Jijj Press London correspondent and covered Prince Hiro during his stay, revealed that the prince had actually had someone in mind to ask to the dance, a bright young Norwegian woman who was a classmate of his. Yamaki related that when the prince sent her a note asking her to accompany him and she accepted, he seemed very happy.

But Prince Hiro’s date with the young Norwegian woman was not to be: Liz Webb accompanied him to the dance instead. Webb, incidentally, became a Foreign Office expert on Russia and led the investigation of the nerve agent poisoning of a retired KGB agent in Salisbury in March 2018.

When Prince Hiro met Owada Masako for the first time at reception to welcome Spain’s Princess Elena in October 1986, he was entranced by her outspokenness. Like Webb, Owada was a diplomat, having joined Japan’s Foreign Ministry in 1987. Perhaps Prince Hiro saw something of Webb in Owada, who was lively, serious-minded, and had a well-developed personality. The evening the prince spent with Webb may have had some impact on his ideas. During his time overseas, the prince’s thinking changed to view the ideal woman as someone who played sports, expressed her opinions, and could speak foreign languages.

Brotherly Rapport with Prince Charles

The Order of the Garter also underlies the ties between the two royal houses. An order of chivalry founded in 1348 by Edward III, it is one of Britain’s highest-ranking orders, whose recipients become Knights of the Garter.

The order is awarded for service to the nation and to various heads of state, and is returned upon recipients’ deaths. Among foreign royalty, European monarchs must be of the Christian faith. Eight European royals, including the queen of Denmark and the kings of Sweden, Spain, and the Netherlands, are currently members of the order. Japan’s emperor is the only non-Christian recipient. In the latter half of the nineteenth century, three Muslim emperors, heads of the Ottoman and the Persian empires who had joined forces against Russia, were also honored, although their orders were returned to the British monarch after their deaths.

A year after the renewal of the Anglo-Japanese Alliance in 1905, which strengthened the ties between Japan and Britain, Emperor Mutsuhito (posthumously Meiji) was invested in the order, as were his three successors, Emperors Yoshihito (Taishō), Hirohito (Shōwa), and Akihito (not emperor emeritus). Hirohito was stripped of the order after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, although his knighthood was restored in 1971.

During his stay, the British royal family warmly welcomed Prince Hiro, who felt a special rapport with Prince Charles, 12 years his senior. In London they went to the opera, and in Scotland enjoyed salmon fishing and barbecues. The British royals hosted a dinner for Prince Hiro shortly before his return to Japan, and Prince Charles contributed a foreword to the English translation of The Thames and I.

In his message, Prince Charles lauded the book for its finely detailed observations, refined sense of humor, and the way in which Prince Hiro approached all his activities with a hopeful outlook. He applauded the warm friendship between the two royal houses reflected in their close ties, and expressed his thanks for the recollections the prince had shared about his time at Oxford.

Queen Elizabeth was the first to extend a state invitation to Emperor Naruhito, the former Prince Hiro, when he ascended the throne in 2019. The emperor’s brother, Prince Akishino, and his wife are scheduled to travel to London to attend King Charles’ coronation in May 2023. A visit by King Charles to Japan and an official visit by Emperor Naruhito and Empress Masako to Britain, where Naruhito would be the fifth Japanese emperor to receive the Order of the Garter, would extend the decades of ties between the royal houses and signal the start of a new era of friendship.

(Originally published in Japanese. Banner photo: Prince Hiro with fellow students at Oxford, December 1983. © Jiji.)

emperor imperial family diplomacy Britain royalty