The Japan Society
Publications Books & Journals The Japan Society Review

British Royal and Japanese Imperial Relations, 1868-2018

British Royal and Japanese Imperial Relations, 1868-2018
Edited by Peter Kornicki, Antony Best and Sir Hugh Cortazzi
Renaissance Books and the Japan Society (2019)
ISBN 978-1-898823-86-5

To receive your free copy (Japan Society members only) or to buy this book please visit our bookshop here

Review by Ian Nish

Sir Hugh Cortazzi stated that he wanted the papers for the final 10th volume in his long series entitled Britain and Japan Biographical Portraits to be delivered in time for his 90th birthday. This was intended as an inducement for sluggish contributors like me to speed up. He achieved his object: the volume was published in 2016. But he had a surprise still in store for us. He pulled a rabbit out of the hat, the present volume dealing with court relations between the two countries and the role they played, subjects neglected in the earlier volumes. In telling the story, Sir Hugh is joined by two experts in the field, Professor Peter Kornicki and Professor Antony Best.

Part I (Kornicki) deals with the reigns of two long-serving hereditary monarchs: Queen Victoria (1837-1901) and the Emperor Meiji (1868-1912). Meiji himself never left the shores of Japan. The junior Japanese princes came to Britain and to other countries from the 1870s onwards for education, language study and military training. Britain gladly obliged though its attitude was paternalistic towards the newcomer. Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, the second son of Victoria, visited Japan in 1869 despite security scares. He met the Emperor Meiji. The reception of this official mission was very favourable. Other British princes (Albert Victor, George and Arthur) made contact with Japan over shorter periods but it was generally in connection with their assignments in the Royal Navy. The limit to royal connections at this stage, Professor Kornicki thinks, was that ‘Japan was simply not seen as an important world player until its victory in the Sino-Japanese war.’ (p. 53) But success in that war in 1895 created its own problems for Britain. At the time of preparing the ceremonial for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897, Japan threatened that she would not be represented by a prince unless he was given equal status with the European representatives invited. She won her case but had to ask!

The second Part (Best) is entitled ‘A Royal Alliance: Court Diplomacy 1902-41’. There were high points and low points in this period which covered the reigns of two Emperors Taisho 1912-26 and Showa 1926-88; and the reigns of Kings Edward VII 1901-10, George V and George VI. Japan had been spectacularly successful in her development in the previous century and her progress industrially was greatly admired in Britain. The high point was reached in the two decades of the Anglo-Japanese alliance which was signed in 1902, revised in 1905 and again in 1911. The statesmen and rulers of the day praised it as the lynchpin of their foreign policy, but each time it was renewed with less enthusiasm. In Britain the sovereign opposed the award of the Order of the Garter, the highest order of chivalry, to non-Christian monarchs, until Japan’s resounding victory over Russia in 1905. The following year a Garter Mission under Prince Arthur of Connaught, was sent to Tokyo and presented the Garter to the Meiji Emperor, King Edward VII having given way in his opposition. Prince Komatsu (Higashi-Fushimi) who was later to represent his country at the Japan-British Exhibition of 1910, performed the reciprocal mission in 1907.

Under the heading ‘Two Funerals and Two Coronations’, Professor Best points out that royal princes had to do much travelling in the years that followed. They had to attend the funerals of Edward VII (1910) and the Meiji Emperor (1912) and the coronations of their successors. So the royal rituals of cordiality were observed; but there were disturbing undertones. The British were irritated by the inroads Japanese were making into the economy of China and saw the position deteriorating with the revolution there in 1911-2, while Japan blamed Britain for not helping with her long-term plans for China.

Britain decided to renew the Anglo-Japanese alliance for ten years until 1921, feeling that it was opportune to keep in place the constraints imposed on Japan under the alliance. With the outbreak of the first world war, the position became very sensitive over the degree of Japan’s commitment to the Entente cause. Towards the war’s end, things had reached such an extreme that Britain decided to present the Emperor Taisho with a field-marshal’s baton of the British army, and Prince Arthur of Connaught was asked to lead another mission, on this occasion a military mission. But there was the additional political hope of weaning senior Japanese military officers away from any pro-German leanings they had.

The Anglo-Japanese alliance was built into the court system after two decades. But it came under criticism by outside powers at the Paris Peace Conference and was wound up at the Washington conference of 1921. It was finally laid to rest two years later. Japan believed that these post-war international settlements had been stacked against her. Many thinkers in both countries wondered what could be done to secure peace and stability in east Asia. Some contribution could surely be made by those who undertook royal missions. Crown Prince Hirohito visited Britain in the course of a European tour in 1921, which was a success for someone who was young and naturally shy. The following year Edward Prince of Wales, who was paying a visit to India was asked to proceed to Japan where his outgoing personality seems to have attracted the Japanese public. On his return from overseas, the Crown Prince became regent until his ailing father’s death in 1926. After Hirohito’s accession to the throne, Britain sent a further mission led by the Duke of Gloucester in 1929 to present the Showa Emperor with the Order of the Garter. This was reciprocated by Prince and Princess Takamatsu who had just married. After the business had been completed, the British government invited them as a gesture to stay a further week in Britain at its expense. From both sides these visits in the middle of a fraught period had an overtly political dimension: it was easiest to use the ruling families to restore some of the former cordiality.

Prince Chichibu, who had been partly educated in UK between 1929 and 1931 and was brother of the Emperor Hirohito, took important steps in this direction, assisted by his wife, Princess Chichibu, the daughter of the prominent ambassador Matsudaira Tsuneo, who was born in Walton on Thames and had received part of her education in Britain. He and his wife were together nominated to attend King George VI’s coronation in 1937 and were accorded unexpected privileges, despite the outbreak of the war in China and the fraught atmosphere in Britain caused by the abdication crisis. Professor Best’s view is that by the mid-thirties ‘the court had become one of the last bastions of pro-British sentiment in Japan’. (p.120) Certainly a coterie of significant figures was appointed to senior positions at Court, including Count Makino Nobuaki, veteran of the Paris peace conference and well-known liberal, and ex-ambassador Matsudaira Tsuneo who held the office of Minister for the Imperial Household. From the end of the 30s royal relations entered what Best describes as ‘a deep freeze’.

The final and longest Part written by Hugh Cortazzi bears the title ‘Renewing and Developing Royal Relations in a Changed World: 1945-2018’. In the changed world, Japan had to face the fact of her defeat in war; Britain had to accept her diminished role in east Asia. The United States was top dog. The Japanese depended on her for their economic recovery. The British likewise.

In 1962 Princess Alexandra aged 24 visited Japan after a university function in Hong Kong. Hers was a cultural tour but came to be associated with a government effort to penetrate the Japanese market. Japan was enjoying prodigious economic growth; and Britain sensed potential for the revival of trade. This initiative was reciprocated by Princess Chichibu, who had inherited his role as imperial patron of the Japan-British Society in Tokyo when her husband died in 1953. In this capacity she guided the paths of an increasing number of royal visitors. She accompanied Princess Margaret when she visited Japan to attend British Week in Tokyo in 1969. With the improvement of the Japanese economy, Britain arranged for Expo to be held in Osaka in 1970, with Prince Charles attending. The royal presence in these cases seemed to confirm that goodwill had been re-established in Anglo-Japanese relations and some of the bitter relationships of the war period had been forgotten.

On 31 August 1971 the Emperor announced that he would like to visit Europe despite the anti-Japanese sentiments being expressed there. In the case of Britain, the Order of the Garter was restored to the Japanese sovereign as a symbol of welcome. This was a state visit, indeed the first of the kind, the Emperor to some extent followed his own interests, visiting the Royal Society where he was awarded its fellowship because of his specialised research in marine biology and also the Linnean Society. For him these were high points in the story. Ambassador Sir John Pilcher who accompanied the mission reported on the favourable reactions in Japan and on the column inches devoted to it by the Japanese press. But he ends his account with the pessimistic reflection: ‘that the misdeeds of the past still remain alive.’ (p.169)

Certainly the press in both countries went to town on the ‘insults’ directed by the public at the Emperor; those who were looking for affronts could find them. But as one who stood on the pavement to survey the procession of the royal coach as it passed through central London I cannot say that they were in worse taste than usual. By Japanese conventions it may have caused consternation and a national insult. But the whole of the visit was observed by the general British public with respectful silence and calm.

In 1975 Queen Elizabeth II paid a state visit to Japan in the company of Prince Philip – the first state visit to Japan by a British monarch. It involved stays in Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka and Ise. Those who imagine that royal visits can be arranged without diplomatic difficulty may read the background story of the queen’s projected drive in an open car through central Tokyo with relish (p.177). Eventually it was agreed that she would travel in an open convertible Cadillac. Japanese and British TV audiences savoured the public exposure of the royals; and the Japanese general public for whom it was a new experience appeared to enjoy the concept of open monarchy. Ironically their stay coincided with strikes and transport showdowns, events more associated with ‘igirisubyo’ (English disease) than with Japan. But the Japanese press which had often made capital out of Britain’s poor record for labour disruptions stayed reticent about Japan’s dilemma.

On both sides there was an overwhelming view that the Queen’s visit with its innovations ‘marked a significant step towards reconciliation and renewal of old friendships.’ It was followed by the Crown Prince’s visit to the UK in 1976 and Prince Charles’s journey to Japan with Princess Diana a decade later.

A new aspect of this record of royal visits is the experience of Prince Naruhito, the elder son of Crown Prince Akihito and Princess Michiko, at a university where he had to sample the normal life of a British student. A significant number of the Japanese imperial family had attended courses at British universities for short periods before this so it was not entirely novel. But Naruhito broke new ground by undertaking post-graduate studies at Merton College, Oxford during the years 1983-5 and enjoyed the research experience.

In a memoir he wrote entitled The Thames and I (1993), he gives a brief sketch of the research he carried out on the waterways of central England and the contribution they made to the country’s economic growth and to regional development in the 18th century. After his return to Japan, the prince wrote enthusiastically

The name of the Thames conjures up in me feelings of affection and nostalgia transcending distance and time (The Thames and I, p. 126)

He leaves us an account of his experiences in college (where of course he was anonymous), punctuated by some very homely hints about ‘doing my own laundry and ironing.’ This gave him, he claims, some degree of understanding of British life and attitudes as seen ‘from the inside’. Apart from his studies, he entered into student life with gusto, whether it was classical music (he played the viola in chamber music trios) or the various sports available. He also toured widely in Britain and visited 13 European countries. Copies of his Japanese memoir were distributed to the students of Gakushuin University, surely a sign that Japan’s ruling family had come to be viewed in a new light.

When the Showa Emperor died in January 1989, the Queen was represented at the lavish state funeral by Prince Philip who flew in his own plane from Kenya and crowned heads from around the globe attended. It was the passing of an era. But state visits have continued. The Heisei Emperor paid a state visit to the UK in 1998 and, after a bout of illness, came again with his wife Michiko in 2012 to congratulate Queen Elizabeth II on her diamond jubilee.

Naruhito became Crown Prince, in which capacity he made further visits to the UK. In 1991 he and the Prince of Wales gave speeches of support at the ‘Japan Festival 1991’- a large-scale cultural festival of over 60 official events to mark the centenary of the Japan Society in London. Its aim was to promote greater knowledge and understanding of Japan’s culture and get rid of any misconceptions (p. 194). Similar patronage was offered to ‘Japan 2001’, a festival running for 11 months dedicated to theatre, music and art, the climax being the Matsuri held in Hyde Park.

There is much in Part III which is based on insider knowledge. It is rich in contemporary quotations, invaluable for showing the contemporary assumptions of the participants. This book will for long be the standard work; and the reader will find it convenient as a reference work for Sir Hugh has included a remarkable amount of detail. As elsewhere in the book, the endnotes are authoritative and encyclopaedic.

The publishers, Renaissance Press, must also be commended for the rich collection of illustrations they have unearthed from the past history of Anglo-Japanese relations and the generous selection of plates they have reproduced. The valuable appendix to this study provides an illuminating chronology of Royal and Imperial visits between 1868 and 2018.

In studying the relationship between the British royal and Japanese imperial families, the three contributors to this study show that there was not an uninterrupted progress towards friendship in the past. On the contrary, the two countries have had a bumpy ride. Japan was steered into the community of nations in the early 20th century through its association with the Anglo-Japanese Alliance with all its ups and downs. After it ended, Japan seemed to adopt a nationalist posture which brought it increasingly into contention with Britain. The situation deteriorated in the 1930s and drifted slowly to war. In the aftermath goodwill was only slowly re-created. There were reservations on the British side about the harshness of the past; and the cordiality of royal contacts played its part in repairing this issue. This book has convinced me that as two of the few remaining constitutional monarchies in the world, Britain and Japan should stick together and that healthy communication between our two royal houses may help to smooth over difficulties which arise in the future.

As Sir David Warren writes in his Preface, this volume is a splendid tribute to the late Sir Hugh Cortazzi who by his sheer energy over four decades of retirement steered many volumes on Anglo-Japanese British side relations through the publishing process. His long-cherished purpose was to increase our understanding of modern Japan and her tangled connections with Britain. He prodded my generation to study the history of these countries; and in his many writings he led by example!

Prince Charles is able to write in 2006 of ‘the close friendship between the United Kingdom and Japan which is reflected in the solid bond between the Imperial and Royal Families’. (The Thames and I, Renaissance Books. p. v) But what of the future? At the end of the book the editor warns against too much optimism: ‘the continuance of close and friendly relations between the two monarchies cannot be taken for granted’. (p. 212) They need, Sir Hugh argues, to be cultivated and contacts planned. After 150 years there is still room for stimulating them with a variety of new approaches and bodies like the Japan Society are sufficiently diverse in their interests to play their part.