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Princess Diana turns heads in 1986 Japan

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By Patrick Parr

Two days before arriving in Osaka, Diana, Princess of Wales (1961-1997), fainted. They had been walking for hours, from stand to stand, at the Expo ’86 World Fair in Vancouver, Canada. Finally, at the California Pavilion exhibit, Diana could not take another step. She placed her hand on Prince Charles’s shoulder and said “Darling, I think I’m about to disappear.” She then, according to Diana biographer Andrew Morton, “promptly slid down his side.”

This had not been the first time. Diana’s health was under constant scrutiny by the media, many of whom blamed an endless schedule of events. But behind the royal curtain, as Morton mentions, Diana dealt with bouts of depression and chronic bulimia. After recovering from the fainting spell in Vancouver, Charles was more annoyed than concerned. “She was exhausted,” writes Morton. “hadn’t eaten, and was distressed by her uncaring husband’s attitude. It was what she had come to expect but his disapproving tone still hurt.”

Despite her health, Diana soldiered on. After a 13-and-a-half-hour flight aboard the Royal Air Force VC-10, the couple landed at the Osaka International Airport at around 8p.m. They walked down the steps and shook hands with Prince Naruhito—who’d just returned from studying at Oxford—Diana appearing “pale and tired,” and Charles worried about jetlag. They entered the backseat of a white Rolls-Royce and were driven to Kyoto.

Crazy for Diana

Diana’s popularity in Japan, like the rest of the world, was immense. The Japan Times devoted six pages to their May 8 issue. Full page advertisements “welcomed” the royal couple to Japan. According to writer Tomiko Shirakigawa, the department store Seibu had pastry chefs work for three months on reconstructing an exact replica of their wedding cake, costing it over ¥3 million. It was put on display on the 1st floor of their Shibuya branch. NTT put the royal couple on their telephone cards, while magazines such as Non-No created multiple-choice quizzes related to Diana: "Which rock band does the princess favor: Duran Duran, Culture Club or Checkers?"

Still, even though it appeared to many that the royal couple were overexposed, many didn’t see them this way. As The Japan Times writer Mary E. Campbell wrote, “Charles and Diana have let in just enough light for a peek, but not enough to ruin the illusion.” In her article, Campbell mentioned a general comment made by 19th century political economist Walter Bagehot, who once explained that the royal family’s “mystery is its life. We must not let in daylight upon magic.”

For Diana, it must have been hard to see whatever ‘magic’ Bagehot was referring to. Her life, as it had been for the entire decade, was a never ending schedule of mandatory appearances and greetings, as she endured a problematic marriage and isolation from having to spend weeks away from her two young sons, William and Harry. In Japan, according to Morton, Diana had been “prescribed medication” but “seemed pale, distracted and clearly unwell.”

Even with first lady Nancy Reagan (Tokyo) and Coretta Scott King (Fukuoka) on separate visits in the same week, the Japanese media remained laser-focused on the royal couple. If Diana and Charles had turned on a television, they would have found their life stories being told on three different major stations, complete with Princess Diana’s biography captured in an animated cartoon by manga artist Machiko Satonaka.

Kimono and sumo

Diana’s first full day in Japan started with a trip to the early 17th century Nijo Castle, a short trip from their room at the Kyoto Imperial Palace. At the castle, Diana experienced a traditional tea ceremony and sipped green tea. Later, the couple traveled a short distance and enjoyed the gardens and spring colors at the Shugakuin Imperial Villa. It was while there that Diana tried on a peach-colored furisode (kimono), perhaps inspired by Eishi Hosoda’s drawing of fifth century princess Sotoori.

For at least one moment during the trip, Diana smiled while shuffling across the grass, the small crowd applauding as she moved in a garment that took six months to craft. Later, she asked for two kimonos to be made for William and Harry.

After a packed day of Kyoto culture, the couple flew from Osaka to Tokyo, where crowds of around 90,000 ignored the cloudy sky above and jammed Aoyama and Akasaka districts, hoping to catch even a fleeting glimpse of the motorcade.

Eventually, they made it to Ryogoku’s Kokugikan. Diana had insisted to her team that she wanted to watch sumo if possible. With the summer tournament going on, the couple settled into the arena and watched from Emperor Hirohito’s imperial box. Diana learned the rules via an interpreter, and later had a quick chat with Hokkaido-born, 434-pound sumo champion Yasushi Aoki.

Charles, meanwhile, talked with another sumo wrestling champion, Hawaiian-born, 633-pound Konishiki Yasokichi. Diana Lin of the UPI reported Charles as later saying to a reception that watching sumo was “the most intriguing experience” so far on the trip.

Prince Charles makes history

The six-day itinerary for Prince Charles and Princess Diana during their visit to Japan in 1986. Image: Japan Today

For the prince, the afternoon of May 12 was his turn to be in the spotlight. Speaking to members of both Japan’s upper and lower houses, the Associated Press appropriately recorded his speech as historic, since it was “the first speech given by a member of foreign royalty to the Japanese parliament.”

Charles had visited Japan once before, attending the World Fair Expo in Osaka in 1970 as a 21-year-old bachelor. Now, here he was, 37, a married father of two, ready to show Japan a more mature version of himself.

He started off with a dose of charm, greeting the Diet by saying, “Konnichiwa (good afternoon).” Then, as his father Philip was so capable of achieving, he broke the ice with a quick splash of humor: “We were particularly delighted and honored that His Imperial Highness Prince Naruhito chose to continue his education at Oxford University,” Charles said, “although as some of you may be aware, had I been asked I might have advised him to choose Cambridge.”

Then it was all business. As his mother, Queen Elizabeth II, emphasized during her 1975 visit to Japan, Charles emphasized working together—England and Japan—to help “ease world division and conflict.” With Diana looking on—the press happy to take up ink and describe her “salmon pink suit and white hat trimmed with a matching pink bow”—Charles emphasized a need for global understanding: “At a time when there is division and conflict in the world, the accent needs to be placed on interdependence and solidarity. This is where Japanese and Europeans, with our diversified values and heritage, with our democratic traditions, our skills and talents, can play a special role together.”

He went on, complimenting Japan’s character, but urging action: “We are in dire need of more tolerance, and in this field [of global conflict] the Japanese are particularly gifted because you can communicate easily. You have a sharp eye for observation and are wise enough to listen instead of scatter words to the wind.”

Back to England

After a banquet with Emperor Hirohito—who Prince Charles bowed to, angering some war veterans back home who’d been prisoners of war—the couple flew back to England.

Diana’s problems with Charles and the royal family continued to escalate. She did, however, according to Sarah Bradford’s book, Diana, find time to write a warm note to the butler who took care of the couple during their trip. “Both [Canada and Japan]…were particularly demanding,” she wrote, “and your day started and finished long after ours and along with the jetlag and endless time changes must have left you feeling totally exhausted. Your support and endurance are vital to us and somehow you managed to appear calm and always there with a smile on our return.”

Diana would return to Japan in 1990, and once again in February 1995.

During this last visit, she’d become estranged from Charles, as she strove to become more of an independent force in global affairs. She had arrived three weeks after the devastating Kobe earthquake, which killed over 5,000 people. Speaking at a hospital in Tokyo, Diana had been moved by the stories she’d heard about the disaster: “In the midst of this most terrible devastation, it was wonderful to see neighbors come to the help of those who needed it and to witness the strong sense of community in the rescues.”

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.

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