The UK diplomat and a ‘night of merriment’ with Japan’s future emperor
The young British envoy was Crown Prince Hiro's date at an Oxford ball - and told the queen all about it
It was an extraordinary assignment. Take the future emperor of Japan out for an evening of dancing and drinks, then report back to the queen.
That was the task carried out in the summer of 1985 by Liz Webb, a young British diplomat, this publication has discovered. What’s more, the evening may perhaps have changed the course of Japanese history.
The story emerges in official government documents released for the first time by the Royal Archives. At the time, Japan’s new emperor was known as Prince Hiro, and was nearing the end of two years at Merton College, Oxford. But there was a problem: the traditional end-of-year ball was approaching, and the 25-year-old prince had no one to go with.
It was Liz Webb, a junior official in her first year at the Foreign Office, who came up with the answer. She was already friendly with the young prince, and would step in herself. Exactly what transpired on the night remains a mystery. Webb sent a detailed report to her superiors, but the document has since been removed for “reasons of confidentiality”.
Naruhito himself neglects to mention the episode in a lengthy book he later wrote about his adventures in Oxford. However, a memo from Buckingham Palace suggests the evening was something of a success.
“Thank you for your letter of 22nd July with Elizabeth Webb’s report of her night of merriment with Prince Naruhito at the Merton College Ball,” a palace aide writes. “I didn’t know that the Foreign Office went in for providing an escort service. I enjoyed Miss Webb’s minute enormously, and I’m sure the Queen will do so, too.”
Another note from Sir Sydney Giffard, ambassador to Japan at the time, suggests Webb’s evening spent in the crown prince’s company was of “great benefit” to the British. “On the whole, the picture is very satisfactory,” he writes.
A later note from Webb herself, titled “My Night with Prince Hiro”, says the occasion was of a “private nature”.
“I am now waiting for an attractive offer from the News of the World for the full inside story,” she jokes.
Keith George, 57, a close friend of the emperor at Oxford, said there was “no chance at all” that “anything remotely romantic” happened between the pair. “The prince was always a gentleman, and he would never, ever have been involved in any scandal.”
However, Webb did appear to make a lasting impression on the future emperor. Shortly after the college ball, he gave her two valuable large sake glasses as a gift. And two weeks later, after leaving Britain, Prince Hiro told reporters that his image of an ideal wife had recently changed: “A woman who speaks without timidity is my ideal now. But I can’t marry a foreigner.” He added that he now wanted three qualities in a wife: that she play sports, that she express confident opinions, and that she be able to speak foreign languages.
It was a shock to the Japanese public, and to the imperial family, who were desperate for a male heir. Royal courtiers had reportedly drawn up a long list of potential princesses, all daughters of Japanese nobility, wealth or the educated elite. Crucially, they could not be taller than the future emperor. One report suggested the search team had compiled dossiers on nearly 200 women, each with a photo. But only a year after returning from Britain, Prince Hiro found what he was looking for.
Masako Owada was perhaps an unlikely princess – a 22-year-old fledgling diplomat who had majored in economics at Harvard, and one of a handful of women to pass the prestigious ministry of foreign affairs entrance exam. She was also taller than the 1.6m prince. She too later studied at Oxford, where she was hounded by reporters and even called an impromptu news conference on the library steps to deny any romantic connection to the prince. After a long courtship, she finally agreed to marry Naruhito in 1992.
The demands of the imperial court did not come easy for the young woman, however, and she retreated from public life, with rumours of a nervous breakdown. The Japanese press called her the “broken butterfly” and in 2004 Prince Hiro gave an extraordinary press conference attacking royal courtiers for trying to suppress her individuality.
“For the past 10 years she has tried very hard to adapt to the ways of the imperial family,” the prince said. “To me, she appears totally exhausted from it.”
Webb, meanwhile, is now one of Britain’s most powerful diplomats. Currently the deputy head of mission in Russia, she was pictured in 2019 hauling down the Union flag in St Petersburg after the British delegation was expelled amid an international row over the Salisbury poisonings.
Further study of the documents show that Prince Hiro’s stay was of acute diplomatic importance to the British, and that every effort was taken to make sure he enjoyed himself. One Foreign Office memo raises doubts about “how far his studies into water transport systems have progressed”, but concludes he has “enjoyed his two years here and is taken with the British way of life”.
A picture emerges of a young man revelling in his newfound freedom. In his book, The Thames and I, he reveals how he enjoyed eating vinegar-drenched fish and chips wrapped in newspaper, but found the taste of roast beef “plain and nothing special”. Of his first day, he writes: “Attracted by the smell of beer, I soon found myself in the bar and was greeted in the dingy light by a number of curious students. I can still remember that it was at this moment sitting in the midst of the aroma of the beer and watching the forms and gestures of the students in the gloom, that I realised I was in Oxford, over the sea.”
Most of all he enjoyed the feeling of anonymity, he writes, although he was protected at all times by two bodyguards from Special Branch. During a trip to a college disco, he writes: “On the dance floor I saw young people dancing all sorts of steps. I joined them doing my own kind of dance steps and finding myself face to face with a girl ... I was not the least bored.”
Later he singled out “washing my own clothes” as one of his “fondest memories”. It was perhaps “the happiest time of my life”.
At a ceremony last week, 34 years after leaving Oxford, Emperor Naruhito ascended to the throne. He succeeded his father, 85-year-old Akihito, who abdicated, citing his age and failing health, the first Japanese emperor to stand down in more than 200 years.
“I swear that I will ... fulfil my responsibility as the symbol of the state and of the unity of the people of Japan,” he said, with his wife at his side.
A Foreign Office spokesperson said: “We are pleased the new emperor found his time in Britain enlightening and we look forward to deepening our relationship with Japan in the Reiwa era.” – Additional reporting by Fin Kavanagh
– © Telegraph Media Group Limited (2019)