Who brought His Majesty the Emperor to the “front row” when he was offered the “last seat” in England? Why is His Majesty the Emperor so respected?
By Koichi Matsuura (former Japanese Ambassador to France, Former Director-General of UNESCO) June 2016
The Imperial family is the strongest diplomatic asset. I don’t usually meet with foreign ambassadors, but I make an exception for Japan because I respect the Japanese imperial family,” said a Saudi royal.
Looking at the title of the book “Why are the Imperial Family respected around the world?”, some people may think it is a common book praising Japan. However, this book is a uniquely powerful work that beautifully summarizes how the international activities of the Imperial Family have made a significant contribution to Japan’s growing presence in the international community since the end of World War II.
What is it that makes the Imperial Family such a diplomatic asset? The author attributes it to “the accumulation of a long history and tradition” and “the human power of the Imperial Family, led by Their Majesties the Emperor and Empress, which is based on this history and tradition.
Prince Bandar bin Sultan, who served as Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the U.S. for many years, assumed the important position of secretary general of the National Security Council upon his return to Japan. He was known to be extremely difficult to meet, but Shigeru Nakamura, then Saudi ambassador to the United States, met with him twice at his private residence and obtained important information about the undersea negotiations with Iran. At that time, he said, “Normally, I don’t usually meet foreign ambassadors, but I make an exception for Japan because I respect the Japanese Imperial Family,” he said.
The Imperial Family is regarded by the international community as a symbol of Japan’s post-war unity and enjoys the support of the Japanese people. The magnitude of its presence can be understood when one is actually in the diplomatic arena. And while the international activities of the Imperial Family do not resolve individual diplomatic issues one by one in concrete terms, they do play a role in fostering an atmosphere for that purpose.
Japonism 2018, an event to promote Japanese culture held in France from July last year to February this year, was a huge success with a total attendance of more than 3 million people, and 96% of those surveyed said that they now feel closer to Japan.
However, the exchange between the two countries did not suddenly deepen. A major impetus came from the recent visit of the Emperor and Empress to France in 1994. Since it was the first state visit from Japan, the flags of both countries were flown on the Champs-Elysées, and it was reported as a big news on newspapers and TV every day (from the foreign point of view, the Emperor is the head of state of Japan, so even if the Prime Minister visits, he is not treated as a state guest and the flags of both countries are not flown). I was the ambassador to France at the time, and I welcomed Their Majesties. French people have a high regard for Japanese culture and economy, and the way they welcomed Their Majesties at that time also showed their respect and high favor for the Imperial Family.
Later, in 1997, His Imperial Highness Princess Norinomiya was invited to Japan with the same treatment as a state guest. This was in response to the success of the visit of Their Majesties three years earlier. And this led to the success of Japonism 2018. Although the international activities of the Imperial Family do not produce immediate results, they should be considered as having a broad and deep impact on international exchange.
Saudi Prince’s Consideration
The only way to learn more about why the Imperial Family is respected around the world is to actually read this book, but another fascinating aspect of this book is that it unearths a number of unknown episodes related to the international activities of the Imperial Family.
The coronation of Queen Elizabeth in 1953 was attended by the then Crown Prince Akihito. Since it was shortly after the end of World War II, the eyes of British society on Japan were harsh, and he was given the last seat at the ceremony. However, Prince Faisal, who would later become the King of Saudi Arabia, could not bear to see this and called him to the front row near his seat. Eighteen years later, in 1971, King Faisal was invited to Japan as a guest of honor, which I believe was partly due to his debt of gratitude at the coronation ceremony.
In 1921, Emperor Showa, then Crown Prince, had a luncheon with King Alfonso XIII of Spain in Paris, a story I had never heard before. When Emperor Showa whispered to King Juan Carlos I, who came to Japan in 1980, “I have been treated by your grandfather.” （It was the persistence of the Spanish ambassador that led to the details being revealed. This was cited in the official history of Spain’s foreign policy and contributed to closer relations between the two countries.
The episode about the new emperor features Kazuo Yamashita, the head of the Imperial Household, who was also instrumental in the marriage of Empress Masako to the new emperor. Mr. Yamashita, who had served as ambassador to Morocco, made it possible for Crown Prince Naruhito to visit Morocco in 1991. His first visit to a foreign country after his marriage was also to an Arab country, and it can be said that the relationship between the new emperor and Arab countries began with his visit to Morocco when he was the crown prince.
Many diplomats appear in this book. Through in-depth interviews, the book describes how diplomats are firmly supporting the international activities of the Imperial Family. As an alumnus of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, I am very proud.
I would like as many people as possible to read this book so that they can learn about the activities of the Imperial Family. I also hope that this book will provide an opportunity for many people to think about how the activities of the Imperial Family can continue unchanged in the future.