In October 1971, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor were still reeling from the surprise of one royal visit when they immediately began to prepare for another. The first had come from the Prince of Wales, then a young man of 24, who’s contact with his Uncle David and Aunt Wallis had been severely restricted since Charles’ birth in 1948. David was Charles’ immediate predecessor and had been the most popular Prince of Wales in living memory. In 1911, David had been the first Prince of Wales in centuries to have an investiture ceremony in Wales, a ceremony later used as a model for a similar ceremony held for Prince Charles in 1969. It was only natural therefore, that the young Charles had become intrigued by the way his uncle had approached the role of heir apparent during his tenure as Prince of Wales.
Charles’ visit was not a resounding success. Arranged by Lord Mountbatten, the young Prince wrote of the meeting in his diary; “The whole thing seemed so tragic—the existence, the people and the atmosphere—that I was relieved to escape it after 45 minutes”. For his part, the Duke was said to be enormously touched that his nephew had taken the trouble to visit him. David knew that he was terminally ill by this time having recently been diagnosed with cancer of the throat. Wallis was, according to Charles, “absolutely incredible for her age” (though he followed this with a rather ungallant comment on her use of cosmetic surgery) and certainly she was in her element as the “hostess with the mostess”, expecting as she was another royal visitor the following day.
The Emperor of Japan, Emperor Hirohito, was on a European tour, a monumental moment in Japanese history. Accompanied by his wife, Empress Nagako, the tour would mark the first time a reigning Emperor had left Japan and the proposed tour was an extensive one with stops scheduled in almost every European capital. Belgium, France, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, West Germany, Italy and Denmark were all to play host to the Imperial couple in a whirlwind tour which would last just 18 days. The Emperor himself was positive about his upcoming trip; “I shall do my best to obtain a harvest of international friendship”, he was quoted as saying. The Empress joked, “I am overjoyed not to have to keep telling state guests from abroad that I have never visited any country outside Japan”.
The official leg of the tour was to begin in Belgium where the Emperor and Empress were the guests of King Baudouin and Queen Fabiola. Greeted by a 51 gun salute and a special medieval themed welcome parade at the Grand Place in Brussels, thousands lined the route to welcome a man who had represented Europe’s enemy just 30 years earlier. The official and state visits were only one thread of the complex good will mission and unofficial “friendship calls” were made too. Before arriving in Brussels for example, the Emperor and Empress and had been received by King Frederick IX and Queen Ingrid of Denmark. And before going onto his state visit in London from Belgium, the Emperor had requested another private, informal meeting. This time, with an old friend who just happened to be living in Paris.
The Emperor and the Duke of Windsor had first met in 1921 when, as Crown Prince, Hirohito had conducted a tour of England with the then Prince of Wales serving as an official guide. Hirohito arrived in England in March 1921 in yet another first. No Crown Prince had traveled outside of Japan before and the fact that England was to be the first stop on his tour saw the British government go to expensive extremes to ensure that the visit was a success. Shortly after he celebrated his 21st birthday in Gibraltar, the Crown Prince arrived in London where he was treated to “a very informal breakfast” by King George V, who was said to have worn a dressing gown and carpet slippers throughout.
As much as it was a fact finding mission for the Crown Prince (George V gave him “lessons” on constitutional monarchy as opposed to the Japanese absolute system), there was time amid the endless official engagements of a packed programme for a little play. For a prince who’s life had been ruled by rigid protocol, daily religious ceremonies and unbending etiquette, the experience of playing a round of golf with the Prince of Wales was an eye opening experience and one he never forgot. Indeed, so happy was the Crown Prince in the company of the Prince of Wales that the overall success of the visit, as judged by Japanese officials, was deemed “moderate” as it had unfortunately introduced Hirohito to the idea of “freedom”.
In his 2016 book, Emperor Hirohito and the Pacific War, author Noriko Kawamura says; “Comparing himself to a bird in a cage, Hirohito was delighted to be able to read entire newspapers instead of only clippings. He was so thrilled to be able to ride the Paris subway that he brought back the subway ticket to Japan, where he saved it as a memento in his study’s desk drawer in the imperial palace”. The Crown Prince also seems to have taken to the Prince of Wales and considered him a close friend after only a few days of interaction. Perhaps regarding the Prince as a symbol of a life he wished he could enjoy permanently rather than just visit, Hirohito was delighted when just a year after his own visit to Europe, the Prince of Wales accepted an invitation to visit Japan.
Though the visit to Tokyo was slightly marred by an unfortunate fire at the Imperial Hotel, the Crown Prince (now regent for his ailing father) took every opportunity to incorporate fun activities for his guest just as the Prince of Wales had organised for the Crown Prince in England. The pair played golf again and were photographed together, the Crown Prince wearing Western clothes clearly modeled on fashion plates of the Prince of Wales’ wardrobe which Hirohito admired. Naturally there were official engagements for David too but the contemporaries genuinely appeared to enjoy their time together and within just two years, both men considered themselves to have a bond of friendship that many at the time saw as an extremely positive step forward.
By 1936, King Edward VIII abdicated his throne in order to marry the woman he loved. By 1941 following Japanese attacks in Malaya, Singapore and Hong King (authorised by Emperor Hirohito himself), Britain declared war on Japan. The relationship between the United Kingdom and Japan was broken and bruised and many blamed Hirohito personally and wished to see him executed for war crimes. Stripped of his divinity and forced to accept a new constitutional role, Hirohito spent the remaining years of his life dedicating himself to proving Japan’s new peaceful approach to international relations. His European tour of 1971 was one step in a long and painful process of healing.
It is therefore not surprising that during that tour, the Emperor wished to revisit old memories of a happier time when his personal relations with European governments, leaders and their families was untainted by the horrors of war. When he asked if he might visit the Duke and Duchess of Windsor in Paris, the request was not made as a command from a visiting Emperor to a former King living in the shadow of his own imperial past. It was made as one old friend who wished to be reunited with another. Whether Hirohito knew that David was terminally ill at this time or not may have encouraged him to seek a meeting but regardless of his motivation, the Windsors accepted without hesitation.
At the time, many British journalists (and indeed, those in Whitehall) expressed concern at the meeting. The Emperor was due to begin his state visit to London just days later and many in the UK were still furious at the notion that Hirohito should be welcomed to Buckingham Palace at all. The hurt of the war years was still raw for many and former Japanese Prisoners of War protested his visit along the Mall and in Trafalgar Square. David and Wallis were still the villains of a great royal pantomime and so of course, the press were predictable in their outrage at the idea that Hirohito would meet the Duke and Duchess before meeting the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh.
But the visit went ahead, the Duke and Duchess welcoming their Imperial guests at their home in the Bois de Boulogne where they took tea and reminisced about old times. The Duchess showed the Empress photographs of the Duke in traditional Japanese clothing which he had modeled during his 1922 visit to Japan. The Emperor invited David and Wallis to visit the imperial couple in Tokyo the following year. Both seemed taken aback by the frailty of the other. Time had passed and the two young men full of promise who had played golf together in a by-gone age of great Empires were now worn down by the baggage of their life choices. The meeting was brief but significant. For David, it was a reminder of a role he had one played. For Hirohito, it was a reminder of a life he might have had. And for Wallis and Nagako?
It is worth remembering that Hirohito cast aside centuries of Japanese tradition when he chose his own bride. Refusing to accept the traditional role of concubines and determining that he would be faithful to just one woman, Hirohito had done something remarkable and shocking to many in Japan. Nagako had been swept up in a dramatic reign, a painful journey of bloodshed and brutality hastily followed by recriminations and regret. She had not been allowed to refuse the Emperor.
Wallis too had been “chosen”. Despite her protestations, David’s obsession with Wallis had led to a royal scandal that had shaken the British Empire to it’s core. Perhaps as the couples stood before the Windsors’ home in Paris on that October day in 1971, the bond that tied them together was not so much an old pre-war friendship between two fresh-faced princes but rather, an understanding between two weary women of what it was to have been married to headstrong and controlling men.