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It’s a little hard to know in modern times why members of a royal family once embarked on an extended tour of another country.

From an imperialist point of view, royal tours are essentially an exercise in public relations.

Those who have watched Netflix’s “The Crown” can probably relate this to the Prince and Princess of Wales’ monthlong tour of Australia in 1983. Princess Diana’s popularity two years into her marriage with Prince Charles came at an opportune time, helping to popularize the British monarchy in Australia and stem sentiment that may have led to the Pacific nation leaving the Commonwealth to become a republic of its own.

However, royal tours can also be designed to shape the future of the participants themselves. Prince Edward VII’s Middle Eastern tour of 1862 appears to have had dual purposes: Befriend Egyptian ruler Said Pasha to quell French influence over the Suez Canal and keep the prince away from temptation ahead of his marriage to Princess Alexandra of Denmark.

Edward’s trip to the Middle East was also the first royal tour to be documented by an accompanying photographer (Francis Bedford), which marked the start of a tradition of pictorial commemoration of monarchical voyages.

In 1918, Japan was encouraged to jump on the royal world tour bandwagon, having supported the Allied powers in World War I.

“The Yomiuri, Viscount Motono’s newspaper, advocates a new departure in the movements of the imperial family,” The Times of London reported on May 22, 1918. “It suggests that the young crown prince (of Japan) should be sent on a visit to Europe, which it thinks would have an important effect on Japan’s international position.”

The tour almost three years later would not only highlight Japan’s newfound position alongside Allied powers in the aftermath of World War I, it would also have a profound effect on the individual at the center of the trip: Crown Prince Hirohito.

Crown Prince Hirohito attends a state banquet with London Mayor John Baddeley and Prince Edward in 1921. | FROM THE COLLECTION OF STEVE SUNDBERG (OLDTOKYO.COM)
Crown Prince Hirohito attends a state banquet with London Mayor John Baddeley and Prince Edward in 1921. | FROM THE COLLECTION OF STEVE SUNDBERG (OLDTOKYO.COM)

New world order

Japan had been a formal ally of the United Kingdom since signing an alliance pact in 1902 and, as such, had played a pivotal role on the side of the Allies in World War I. On Aug. 7, 1914, Britain requested that Japan destroy German raiders in Chinese waters, thereby securing important sea lanes. British and Japanese vessels besieged Tsingtao (present-day Qingdao) — the main port of Germany’s “Kiautschou Bay leased territory” in China — resulting in the subsequent surrender of German forces there in November.

By October 1914, Japan had also seized German possessions in the Carolines, Marianas, Marshall Islands and Palau. At the end of the war, Germany was stripped of its colonies, which were then distributed among the Allied powers of Britain, France, Russia, Italy and Japan. Japan was given a League of Nations mandate to govern Germany’s acquisitions in the Pacific.

As a result, after defeating Russia in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05) and then helping the Allies to erode Germany’s influence in Asia, Japan had steadfastly emerged as a world power. The East Asian nation was one of the signatories of the Treaty of Versailles, which officially ended the war with Germany. Naturally, it was left to Hirohito on his tour to Europe to cement and celebrate this position.

The significance of the tour at the time was deftly captured by Kenzo Ishihara, vice minister of the Imperial Household, on the eve of Hirohito’s departure, says Frederick Dickinson, a professor of Japanese history at the University of Pennsylvania. “The tour, Ishihara explained, was entirely befitting an heir to the throne of a new ‘Japan of the world.’

Crown Prince Hirohito watches a boat race at Oxford University, England, in 1921. | PUBLIC DOMAIN
Crown Prince Hirohito watches a boat race at Oxford University, England, in 1921. | PUBLIC DOMAIN

“Japan’s pivotal contribution to the Allied victory in World War I had gained it an honored position at the Paris Peace Conference,” Dickinson says. This, combined with its supply of shipping, textiles and arms to the Allies, had turned Japan into an industrial power.

“Japanese contemporaries uniformly hailed Japan’s rise to the status of ‘world power’ after World War I, and Hirohito’s tour of Europe — the first such tour by a Japanese crown prince — marked another dramatic sign of this new status,” Dickinson says.

However, the journey wasn’t viewed in quite the same way by everyone in Japan. There was, in fact, vocal opposition to the tour.

Although Prime Minister Takashi Hara and elder statesmen such as Aritomo Yamagata, Masayoshi Matsukata and Kinmochi Saionji decided that the trip should be made in order to “broaden (Hirohito’s) experience and deepen his ties with European monarchies,” Japan’s own royal family harbored anxiety about the trip.

“By the end of 1919, serious health issues from a childhood bout of meningitis had incapacitated the Taisho emperor (Hirohito’s father),” Dickinson says. “His last public appearance was in May 1919 for the 50th anniversary of the transfer of the capital from Kyoto to Tokyo.”

Crown Prince Hirohito in 1919 | PUBLIC DOMAIN
Crown Prince Hirohito in 1919 | PUBLIC DOMAIN

All eyes were on Hirohito to take the mantle in the form of prince regent (something that would come to fruition in November 1921, two weeks after his return from Europe), and so some overseas experience for the heir to the Chrysanthemum Throne was intended to serve as a form of training.

“The empress was worried that, with the Taisho emperor incapacitated, imperial duties would come to a standstill during Hirohito’s six-month absence,” Dickinson says.

Hirohito’s mother was concerned that the emperor’s health would decline while the heir was abroad — fears stoked by members of the Imperial Household such as Hamao Arata, former president of Tokyo Imperial University, and revered naval Adm. Heihachiro Togo.

Ultranationalist groups such as the Amur River Society (aka Black Dragon Society) added their voices to the opposition. Their members, says Dickinson, feared for Hirohito’s safety abroad.

These groups were also clashing with Yamagata over a separate issue involving Hirohito’s proposed marriage to Princess Nagako (the pair would eventually marry in 1924).

Although it was believed that experience abroad would do Hirohito good, it had been exactly the opposite when the imperial family discussed a proposal to send his father to Europe many years earlier. The Meiji emperor (Hirohito’s grandfather) had objected, arguing that it would accentuate the future Taisho emperor’s “already overwhelming fascination with the West.”

It’s worth noting, at this point, that a royal trip abroad was certainly nothing new in itself.

“By Hirohito’s time, there was a long tradition of Japanese royalty traveling, even obtaining education, abroad,” Dickinson says.

And so, in continuing the tradition amid the concerns of the empress, plans for the voyage were made. At 11:30 a.m. on March 3, 1921, Hirohito and his entourage set sail for Europe.

Crown Prince Hirohito’s destinations in Europe during his six-month 1921 tour included Great Britain, France, the Netherlands, Belgium and Italy. | FROM THE COLLECTION OF STEVE SUNDBERG (OLDTOKYO.COM)
Crown Prince Hirohito’s destinations in Europe during his six-month 1921 tour included Great Britain, France, the Netherlands, Belgium and Italy. | FROM THE COLLECTION OF STEVE SUNDBERG  (OLDTOKYO.COM)

A message of peace

“The crown prince of Japan went to the Arc de Triomphe this morning and paid the homage of his country at the tomb of the Unknown Warrior,” The Times of London newspaper reported on June 22, 1921. “Paris was bathed in sunshine and looked her best.”

Approaching the tomb, the young Hirohito — then 20 years old — saluted and began to speak. He praised the valor of French soldiers who had given their lives during World War I and, so that their sacrifice would not be in vain, he emphasized peace. Peace, he said, would unite the people of the world.

This was but one episode of many on Hirohito’s European tour in which he would deliver messages of peace and solidarity. It seems almost strange that, despite the association of the later Emperor Hirohito with the horrors of World War II, such a desire for peace could have been allowed to flourish. This was a vastly different time, however, and Japan was angling for a very different place in the world.

Emerging from the war as “one of the five great powers,” Prime Minister Takashi Hara said in 1919 that Japan “contributed to the recovery of world peace.”

“With this,” he noted, “the empire’s status has gained all the more authority and her responsibility to the world has become increasingly weighty.”

Crown Prince Hirohito lays a wreath in Paris in 1921 to commemorate Europeans who had died during World War I. | PUBLIC DOMAIN
Crown Prince Hirohito lays a wreath in Paris in 1921 to commemorate Europeans who had died during World War I. | PUBLIC DOMAIN

Europe, with this costly war still fresh in the mind, was keen on peace. On a visit to Verdun — site of the infamous 1916 Battle of Verdun in which more than 714,000 soldiers are thought to have died — Hirohito is believed to have been incredibly moved by the magnitude of the memorial.

“War is indeed a terrible thing,” he said, shedding a tear. “How pitiable it is.”

It was a key reflection on the times, Dickinson says.

“In the immediate aftermath of the Great War, one key aim of the tour was to enable the crown prince to see the ‘raw remnants of wartime devastation,’” he says. “Indeed, Hirohito is believed to have described his battlefield visits as having left the deepest impression of his tour of France.”

The French leg of the future emperor’s tour followed a trip to England and Scotland, where he started offering tributes to Europe’s war dead, laying a wreath at The Cenotaph at Whitehall and visiting the Tomb of Unknown Warrior at Westminster Abbey in London. In Belgium, he subsequently visited the Lion Mound, commemorating the Battle of Waterloo — a reminder of the Napoleonic Wars (1803-15). And, in Italy, he had an audience with Pope Benedict XV, who twice tried to mediate peace in Europe during World War I without success. During his tour, Hirohito was never too far from the Great War.

Crown Prince Hirohito visits Edinburgh, Scotland, in May 1921. | PUBLIC DOMAIN
Crown Prince Hirohito visits Edinburgh, Scotland, in May 1921. | PUBLIC DOMAIN

Dickinson says it was “further testament of a Japan fully engaged in a new global peace culture.” Between the end of World War I and 1939, various steps were made to peace: the Paris Peace Conference (1919-20), the Washington Naval Treaty (1922) that sought to limit naval construction, the Geneva Protocol (1925) that prohibited the use of chemical weapons, the ambitious antiwar Kellogg–Briand Pact (1928); and the London Naval Treaty (1930), which further limited naval expansion. Japan, fresh to the global stage, was a signatory to all of them.

It feels difficult to reconcile this peace-pursuing crown prince with the later emperor who eventually became head of the Imperial Japanese Army. However, according to a document declassified in 2017 — a dispatch written by former British Ambassador to Japan John Whitehead to Foreign Secretary Geoffrey Howe in January 1989 — the emperor “appears to have shown little enthusiasm for his military studies.”

“The contemporary diary evidence suggests that Hirohito was uncomfortable with the direction of Japanese policy,” the correspondence reads, suggesting that the emperor was ultimately “powerless” in the face of militaristic expansionism and war.

Dickinson agrees, saying that, by the 1930s, the tide had definitely turned against the “robust peace culture in interwar Japan.”

“Japan’s champions of war in the 1930s made sure not only to secure imperial support,” he says. “They went out of their way to erase the formidable history of Hirohito’s engagement with the interwar global culture of peace.”

Prince Hirohito lays a wreath at the Great War memorial in Whitehall, London, in 1921. | FROM THE COLLECTION OF STEVE SUNDBERG (OLDTOKYO.COM)
Prince Hirohito lays a wreath at the Great War memorial in Whitehall, London, in 1921. | FROM THE COLLECTION OF STEVE SUNDBERG  (OLDTOKYO.COM)

Man of the people

Hirohito’s European tour wasn’t only a lesson in international peace, it also presented to him the possibilities of monarchy in the 20th century.

“Japanese upper classes and the general public appropriately considered Japan to be central to a global community of royalty,” Dickinson says.

There had been a relatively long culture of contact between the Japanese imperial family and the royal families of Europe, particularly of Britain, with which Japan shared the “strongest royal ties,” Dickinson adds.

For example, Prince Arthur of Connaught had visited Japan three times: in 1906, conveying the Order of the Garter on behalf of Edward VII; attending the funeral of Emperor Meiji in 1912; and, in 1918, conferring the baton of field marshal to Emperor Taisho.

However, it wasn’t just the intermonarchical relations in other nations that made an impression on Hirohito, it was the dynamic between palace and public that moved him.

“Inspired in particular by the intimacy between the British crown and the British people, Hirohito vowed upon his return to Japan to realize the same intimacy with his own people,” Dickinson says.

Crown Prince Hirohito stands alongside British Prime Minister David Lloyd George in England in 1921. | PUBLIC DOMAIN
Crown Prince Hirohito stands alongside British Prime Minister David Lloyd George in England in 1921. | PUBLIC DOMAIN

Indeed, The Times of London reported that, long before the official visit began, crowds would be permitted to “cheer and otherwise to express their feelings” as the crown prince passed by.

However, a police order one day before his arrival “prohibited cheering, handkerchief waving and all forms of outward display.”

“Therefore,” The Times of London said on Sept. 3, 1921, “the crown prince was received by the vast crowds outside and inside the station in time-honored silence.”

What the Times report didn’t note, however, was the way in which Hirohito had leaned out the window of his train carriage from Yokohama to Tokyo upon arriving back home, moving the crowd to tears at this personal interaction.

The crown prince was certainly celebrated for “having clearly imbibed the ‘commoner spirit’ that had facilitated the intimate relationship between the British crown and its subjects,” Dickinson says.

It wasn’t the only relationship that was solidified during the tour. Although the Anglo-Japanese alliance eventually expired without renewal in 1922, British royalty were quick to welcome the crown prince. His state visit, like a secret handshake, was proof of friendship on the world stage.

For Hirohito himself, it was a taste of freedom.

Crown Prince Hirohito visits the Eiffel Tower in Paris in 1921. | PUBLIC DOMAIN
Crown Prince Hirohito visits the Eiffel Tower in Paris in 1921. | PUBLIC DOMAIN

He strolled through the university campus at Oxford and watched boat races on the River Thames; he marveled at the Eiffel tower and ate snails in Paris; he glimpsed the Colosseum in Rome and visited the ruins of Pompeii.

It was this excitement of a world beyond the shores of Japan that would prompt him in 1970 — a year ahead of his 1971 trip to Europe as emperor, a visit that was also depicted in “The Crown” — to remember his earlier journey with a healthy dose of poignancy.

“My life up until then,” he said, looking back at the time before his first European tour, “was like that of a bird in a cage.”

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