Emperor’s Role in Japan-U.K. Ties / Expanding Friend Circle Allowed Emperor to Improve English Ability; Realized Importance of Learning English at Young Age

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
The Emperor visits a shop in Oxford, England, while studying in the city, in September 1985.

While he was studying in the United Kingdom, the Emperor learned how a British monarch should behave and how a constitutional government should function.

The Emperor and Empress are set to visit Britain as state guests for eight days from Saturday.

This is the second installment in a series in which The Yomiuri Shimbun has traced the history between the Imperial family and the British royal family and learned about the Emperor’s thoughts and wishes.


The Emperor struggled with communicating in English during his early days studying at the University of Oxford in England in 1983. According to a former professor at the university who saw him on campus, the Emperor appeared confused while speaking to someone.

Some time later, the professor saw him again and noticed that the Emperor seemed different. He was attentive to the people around him, suggesting topics of conversation that everyone could enjoy. The professor recalled being impressed that an heir to the Imperial family could grow in such a way.

The Emperor’s language skills improved as he gained more friends.

“The Emperor kept getting invited by people whom he had met once — perhaps because of his personality — and became fluent in English through his conversations with them,” a former aide said.

Records on the Emperor, now kept at the U.K.’s National Archives, were compiled by the British foreign ministry and describe the Emperor as a tennis player and skier who can also play the viola, cello and piano. The profile also states that “His English is excellent. A little shy when speaking English, but pleasant young man.”

Advice from a friend

Shin Tachibana, the Emperor’s schoolmate from kindergarten to junior high school at Gakushuin schools, said that when they were in their mid-teens, the Emperor asked him if he thought he would need to learn English and if he should study abroad.

Tachibana had lived in Mexico for three years due to his father’s job, and he told the Emperor: “In the future, every job will require interactions with foreign countries, so English is necessary. You should study in the United Kingdom.”

Tachibana said he gave the Emperor such advice because he had been exposed to many languages while overseas, and in his opinion, British English was highly respected.

Tachibana later became a hotelier and started working at The Okura. He observed how the Emperor, then the crown prince, hosted his royal guests who were visiting Japan.

“The Emperor’s hospitality was sophisticated and dignified,” Tachibana said, recalling how the Emperor interacted with his guests. Cherishing his conversations with the Emperor from years ago, Tachibana said he was proud of the Emperor.

Life’s work

In April 2019, just before his accession to the throne, the Emperor published the book “Speeches on Water Issues.” He wrote about the joys and hardships of his days studying the history of water transportation in the medieval era, reading historical documents in English and researching the Thames River basin under the supervision of University of Oxford Prof. Peter Mathias and Dr. Roger Highfield.

While the Emperor was at Oxford, an argument took place between Japan and the university over the purpose of his research, according to those involved. The Japanese side wanted the Emperor to earn his degree, but some at the university said he did not have enough time to complete a thesis under university standards. Eventually, it was decided that the Emperor would publish his thesis as a book. In 1989, four years after he returned to Japan, his thesis “The Thames as highway,” which was written in English, was published.

Hideaki Oda, 82, the then director of the river bureau of the Construction Ministry, which is now known as the Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry, said the Emperor fondly remembered his research on the Thames basin. Oda recalled the Emperor saying that the Thames sluice gates could be manually opened and closed, whereas Japanese sluice gates are electrically operated. Oda served as a consultant on water issues, a topic the Emperor has dedicated his life to.

“It must have been very difficult to conduct research in a foreign language,” Oda said. “However, such hardships must have driven him to expand the scope of his studies on water to the global environment, sanitation and supply.”