It’s called shunto in Japan, or the spring labor offensive, when wages and raises for the nation’s workers are being negotiated, and Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip had flown to Japan right smack in the middle of a nationwide transport strike in 1975. The queen and her husband had made plans on May 10 to travel to Kyoto via the shinkansen — a then 140-mph bullet train — but would have to wait and see if the strike would be settled before finalizing their plans.
The prince and WWII
The royal couple’s historic trip to Japan started smoothly on May 7. It was the first time the queen had visited Japan, but Philip’s history was a bit more complicated.
During World War II, Philip had served on the HMS Whelp and during August and September of 1945 — according to royal biographer Gyles Brandreth’s Philip and Elizabeth: Portrait of a Marriage — he’d been “looking forward to some action against the Japanese” before the atomic bombs fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Still, the HMS Whelp hung around long enough to witness history.
“Being in Tokyo Bay,” Philip recalled many years later, “with the surrender ceremony taking place on the battleship which was what, 200 yards away, you could see what was going on with a set of binoculars. It was a great relief.”
“As great trading nations, Britain and Japan have everything to gain from closer commercial and financial links.” —Queen Elizabeth II, 1975
Even more emotional was Philip helping to bring aboard prisoners of war who were, in Philip’s words, “emaciated…they sat down in the mess hall. They were suddenly in an atmosphere that they recognized…and so we gave them a cup of tea. It was an extraordinary situation…tears pouring down their cheeks. They just drank their tea. They couldn’t really speak.”
This brief but powerful memory was something Philip was not about to share upon meeting Emperor Hirohito or any of his associates. The emphasis of their trip was business relations. So whenever someone came up to Philip during the visit and asked, “Is this your first visit to Japan?” Philip was terse: “Yes,” he replied, yes it was.
Hirohito wouldn’t have wanted that conversation either. The emperor’s responsibility for the war continued to be debated in the Japanese press, perpetuated by his own family. In February 1975, three months before the queen’s visit, according to biographer Herbert P. Bix, Hirohito’s brother, Prince Takamatsu, was quoted in a popular magazine as having cautioned his brother in June 1942 “to end the war right after the Battle of Midway.”
These awkward moments often sprang into the media whenever the emperor met with high-ranking officials from England or the United States.
The queen and business
The queen had first met the emperor when he visited England in October 1971. That trip, part of a controversial European tour urged in part by Prime Minister Eisaku Sato, was, as Bix reported, a “rude awakening, both for [Hirohito] and the Japanese nation,” as people in the streets were either quiet but also “hurled objects and insults at his motorcade.”
During that visit, the queen attempted during a dinner toast to subdue the negativity surrounding the emperor.
“We cannot pretend that the past did not exist,” Elizabeth told the attendees, as reported in the New York Times. “We cannot pretend that the relations between our two peoples have always been peaceful and friendly. However, it is precisely this experience which should make us all the more determined never to let it happen again.”
Three and a half years later, she found herself at a state dinner party at Akasaka Palace standing between Prince Akihito to her right and Japan’s emperor to her left. Wearing her crown and speaking from a paper in her hands, the queen’s words stressed collaboration and cooperation between the two countries: “We must also continue to develop our bilateral trade. This has been and will be the bedrock of our relations. Britain has a strong and broadly based industry. It is kept vigorously in the forefront of scientific research and development. So, we have much to offer. As great trading nations, Britain and Japan have everything to gain from closer commercial and financial links. And as worldwide traders, we also have a strong common interest.”
Trade had been the theme of the couple’s 18-day international trip that started with a conference near Kingston, Jamaica, the queen discussing matters with top-level government officials in the Commonwealth. The couple then took a few days to themselves in Hawaii before flying into a touch of controversy in the then-British-controlled city of Hong Kong. Pro-Chinese protesters there demonstrated against Prince Philip’s visit to a university, saying via megaphones that it was a “waste of money.”
The royal couple’s visit to Japan, on the other hand, proved to be widely celebrated. Compared to U.S. President Gerald Ford’s 1974 trip that required over 160,000 police officers armed with tear gas guns, the Japanese government assigned 50,000 to the queen and Philip. Since she was “the queen,” the government made sure to surround her with a “2,400-member courtesy squad,” 600 of whom were women in more “colorful” uniforms. Department stores, as the Associated Press reported at the time, rushed in over $10 million worth of merchandise — medallions, clothing, furniture and other British imports — to sell to consumers.
Their itinerary, which you can see below, was packed with official visits. The couple was at least given a chance to “rest” in Kyoto, but due to the ongoing transport strike, they flew there instead. The queen took in the sights of temples and sipped green tea in the Katsura Imperial Villa Garden.
The four-day transport strike, reported by the Associated Press as “crippling” travel plans nationwide, ended before the royal couple left Kyoto. The Japanese government conceded to a 14% employee wage increase, far short of the union’s goal of 30%.
Still, as the AP reported, the end of the strike meant workers no longer had to “either stay home, spend agonizing hours in mammoth traffic jams or travel miles to work by bicycle or on foot.”
For Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip, it meant the luxury of traveling back to Tokyo via the shinkansen, and a look to their left at the iconic Mount Fuji, sliding in and out of view.
For video of the queen’s visit to Japan, check out this Texas Archive of the Moving image link.
Our next Japan Yesterday will feature writer Lafcadio Hearn (Koizumi Yakumo) in 1890 Japan.
Other stories in the Japan Yesterday series:
Volume 3 (January 2022 – present)
Volume 2 (September 2019 – July 2021)
Volume 1 (November 2018 – May 2019)
Patrick Parr’s second book, One Week in America: The 1968 Notre Dame Literary Festival and a Changing Nation, was released in March 2021 and is available through Amazon, Kinokuniya and Kobo. His previous book is The Seminarian: Martin Luther King Jr. Comes of Age, now available in paperback. He teaches at Lakeland University’s Tokyo campus.
© Japan Today