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)
- U.S. President Gerald Ford's historic visit to Japan in 1974
- The Beatles storm the Nippon Budokan in Tokyo in 1966
Volume 2 (September 2019 – July 2021)
- William Elliot Griffis resists temptation in feudal 1871 Japan
- Marian Anderson sings for the Empress of Japan
- Robert Kennedy confronts communist hecklers at Waseda University in 1962
- Commodore Perry’s black ships deliver a letter to Japan in July 1853
- The story of Commodore Matthew C. Perry’s trip to Shuri Castle in 1853
- Japanese journalist witnessed the death of Malcolm X
- Muhammad Ali fights Antonio Inoki at the Nippon Budokan in 1976
- Eleanor Roosevelt visits ‘burakumin’ and Emperor Hirohito in 1953
- Charles and Anne Lindbergh fly 7,000 miles to Japan in 1931
- A young Douglas MacArthur visits Japan in 1905
- J. Robert Oppenheimer father of the atomic bomb visits post-war Japan
- Alexander Graham Bell falls asleep meeting Emperor Meiji
- Frank Lloyd Wright designs Japan’s Imperial Hotel during a midlife crisis
Volume 1 (November 2018 – May 2019)
- The ‘Sultan of Swat’ Babe Ruth visits Japan
- Charlie Chaplin tramps his way past a Japanese coup d’état
- When Albert Einstein formulated his Japanese cultural equation
- Mrs and Mr Marilyn Monroe honeymoon in Japan
- American President Ulysses S Grant talks peace in Meiji-Era Japan
- Helen Keller brings hope and light to Japan
- Margaret Sanger brings 'dangerous thoughts' to Japan in 1922
- Bertrand Russell’s blinding Japanese resurrection
- Audrey Hepburn casts a spell over post-war Japan
- Ralph Ellison makes himself visible in 1950s Japan
- John Hersey visits the ruins of Hiroshima in 1946
- Russia’s Nicholas II is scarred for life in 1891 Japan
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
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Queen Elizabeth II avoids discussing the war with Emperor Hirohito during 1975 Japan visit
Did an advisor actually lean towards the Queen and whisper "Don't talk about the war"?
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
More interesting than the Queen's itinerary is Japan labor negotiations shutting down the country like in France and actually delivering results for workers.
That's the part of the article I found most interesting, as well. Hopefully, Japanese workers can try to regain some of that power, the way workers in the US are beginning to make a welcome push for labor unions again.
Never ever… lol They are busy and exhausted after work plus overtime hours and the rest of the few time left they are busy with collecting coupons or bonus points, line stamps, texting on matching sites and reading online manga on their smartphones.
If we're talking about the Brits and while the official version goes along the line of "Queen Elizabeth II avoids discussing the war with Emperor Hirohito during 1975 Japan visit", the reality of the event was more like:
When Japan invaded Asian countries, America helped them. but When Britain invaded Asian countries, America, other European countries didn't help them. Japanese emperor is always linked to war crimes but why European monarchs aren't linked to war crimes? Their countries also committed a lot of misdeeds there. Why don't Asian and African people ask queen Elizabeth to apologize for her country's misdeeds in Asia and Africa?
Considering some of the Queens relatives and their "friends" in Germany, the Queen is probably best not to mention the war.
When the Japanese soldiers arrived in Philippines, the British soldiers surrendered. When the Japanese soldiers arrived in Hong Kong, the British soldiers surrendered. Don't talk about the war!
It was 1975, not 1945. Japan wasn't fascist anymore in 1975. The past was/is the past. Japan lost WW2 and became a different nation, in leadership and government.
Time changes everything. And it can heal. In cases like these you gotta bury the hatchet. Japan had changed in that 30 year span. So had Britain.
Queen Elizabeth would have known herself to avoid discussion of WW2 and would not have needed to be advised. As for Prince Philip, I think he should have just been honest and answered "no" to the question "Is this your first visit to Japan".
If Japan and the other fascists had won the war it would be the allies held up as war criminals but, thankfully, that's not how it worked out is it.