Meeting Emperor Naruhito in person is a limited opportunity for regular people, a majority of whom have only seen his solemn expression at ceremonies or gentle smile at receptions. However, Andrew B. Arkley, an old friend and schoolmate, has shed some light on the emperor’s natural self to The Japan Times, including his friendliness and nickname in high school.
“He is always smiling and he is always very warm and thoughtful, and he goes out of his way to make people fit in and feel comfortable. He is the epitome of thoughtfulness,” said Arkley, the general manager of a medical clinic in Yokohama and former Australian trading company owner.
As an exchange student of the Rotary Club then, the Melbourne native entered Gakushuin University’s high school in Tokyo in April 1975 as a second year student and one of the school’s first non-Japanese pupils. Arkley had known the emperor, then-Prince Naruhito, was among the first-year students, but couldn’t tell who the prince was because every student wore the same school uniform.
Arkley took a German class that combined both first and second year students, and one of the first-year students that he befriended introduced the prince to him.
“I said: ‘hajimemashite‘ (very nice to meet you). I think I spoke to him in Japanese. And I said ‘Can we be friends?’ And he said ‘With pleasure,'” Arkley said, adding that the prince’s amiable aura made him feel they could easily become friends.
“From a distance, he looks like anyone else. But when you meet him, he is very friendly. His eyes are looking at you and understanding you. You could feel his warmth,” he reflected on his first impression of the imperial figure who was called “Miya-sama” (Prince) at the school. “He is always like that when he is talking to anybody.”
After their first meeting, Arkley had more chances to speak with the emperor as they belonged to the school’s geography club. During the club’s excursion to the Hokuriku region, an area facing the Sea of Japan, the emperor talked about his nickname “Jii” to Arkley. While the Australian said he didn’t know what Jii meant then, he heard from the emperor why he was nicknamed that several years later.
“During his junior high school days, he was walking on the school grounds and passed one of the neighbors’ backyard. And there was a bonsai. And he said to his friends, ‘Nakanaka ii edaburi dane‘ (‘The tree has quite a handsome foliage’). And his friends said: ‘Your taste is something like of ojiisan (an old man). Let’s call you Jii (old man). That’s how it started,” Arkley said. “To me, I found it very difficult to say Jii to the prince. So I maybe called him Jii a couple of times. But I think he liked his nickname.”
During the excursion to Hokuriku, Arkley was surprised to see a crowd of around 1,000 locals welcoming the emperor at Kanazawa Station. Although met with a mass of people waiting for him, the emperor spent his time as any other student did by visiting geographical spots, as well as chatting and laughing with each other until late at night at inns, said Arkley, who detailed this and many other episodes with the emperor in his recent book in Japanese “Heika, kyo wa naniwo hanashimasho” (“Your Majesty, what shall we talk about today?”)
The book shared how much the emperor loved going on trips with his fellow students as he wrote a Japanese and English poem on another excursion in a letter to Arkley when he went back to Australia. The poem went:
“The hour for putting out lights was over,
We were, however, chatting with each other,
A bear shouted out ‘Go to sleep sooner.'”
“This is an example of how he likes poetry and his sense of humor,” Arkley said. “The emperor, the prince at that time, loves telling jokes. He is very humorous. And that’s why maybe he is smiling a lot.”
After corresponding with the emperor, Arkley came back to Japan in 1977 and went to a Japanese language school attached to Tokyo University of Foreign Studies. At that time, he often visited the emperor at the palace at the Akasaka Estate.
“And we usually spoke in English, and the reason I went was to let him practice his English conversation … we discussed different things … And he might have asked me some questions,” said Arkley, explaining the emperor had free time before entering Gakushuin University. “It was an opportunity for him to concentrate on other things like studying English, which he knew of course was going to be so important for him in the future. But to me, I didn’t feel it a burden but a real pleasure. It was such a lovely experience.”
Although they met less for their English sessions as the emperor became busy with university, Arkley had been invited to the palace many times when the emperor held parties, he said. And as the emperor became more occupied with his official duties and family after he married Masako Owada in 1993, Arkley was only able to meet him twice since then. He said all the time he has known the emperor, he has been positive and never said anything bad about anybody.
“He is always very positive and always sees a positive outcome for everything.” Such characteristics, Arkley believes, were greatly influenced by the emperor’s upbringing.
“I think his parents did a remarkable job of raising their children. Not just him, but also Prince Akishino and Sayako-sama (former Princess Sayako). Such a warm family and environment,” said Arkley who has met the emperor’s family members.
Arkley said warm familial relations were also a factor in the abdication of Emperor Emeritus Akihito in April. He described it as a marvelous change of style for the emperor to abdicate when he was still healthy, which in turn gave people a chance to say thank you, and welcome the new emperor without going through bereavement.
“I think it’s wonderful and so typical of the way that family looks after each other. And of course, there were probably many reasons why the emperor wanted to abdicate. One reason I am sure is because he wanted to give his son the opportunity to become emperor before he got too old. So it’s been such a happy event and I know the new emperor must be ready to take on his role.”
Since he was young, Emperor Naruhito was the kind of person to try and see things through, said Arkley. He expressed his hope for the emperor to continue his research into water matters, which he has devoted himself to. This passionate and serious attitude toward research and duties also extends to his wife, Empress Masako, Arkley added, referring to what the emperor said to her when he proposed.
“He said, when he got married, ‘Bokuga issho zenryokude omamorishimasu‘ (‘I will protect you with all my might for the rest of your life’). Don’t take that lightly. He is very serious when he says something like that. He is man of honor,” Arkley said and maintained he wasn’t surprised when in 2004, the emperor obliquely accused the Imperial Household Agency, which administers all affairs of the imperial family, of suppressing his former diplomat wife’s wish to make overseas trips and thereby negating her personality.
It is believed the agency’s policy of reducing her foreign trips to let her concentrate on giving birth to a male heir caused her stress and she was diagnosed with a type of mental illness later in the year.
But in recent years, the empress has been steadily recovering and she has joined the emperor’s duties. In May she attracted attention through her native-level English when she welcomed U.S. President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump during their state visit to Japan.
Arkley said, as the empress was a diplomat and speaks English and other languages very fluently, the imperial couple are more outreaching to foreign countries and acting as something like diplomats while also working on domestic issues in Japan.
“As we all know, the previous emperor and empress also spoke fluent English. The new emperor and empress have much more opportunities studying and living overseas, … not just learning languages but also firsthand experience of learning different cultures and societies,” said Arkley. “And of course, at this age in Japan, the working labor force is becoming smaller and the elderly (population is) becoming bigger, there are going to be needs for foreign people. Japan has to think about Japan and the world. In that sense, I think the new emperor and empress will be setting a remarkable example (of understanding people from other countries).”