Member Login

Member Login

Password *

Number 1 Shimbun

The crown prince’s Roman Holiday

The Heisei Emperor has long been a sympathetic and inspiring role model on the domestic and international stage. Does a little-known overseas incident hold a clue to his emotional development?


05 1

Holiday Romance 
“I’d like to do just whatever I liked”


By Eiichiro Tokumoto


The 30 years of Japan’s Heisei Era will come to an end with the abdication of Emperor Akihito at the end of April. During a reign that began in January, 1989, he has been a unifying figure, paying numerous visits to places hit by natural disasters in addition to his regular duties. He also has made commemorative journeys to WWII battlefields in Okinawa, the Philippines, Saipan and other locations, to console the spirits of those killed in the war. 

In visits to areas hit by natural disasters, the emperor has often offered his consolation to survivors while kneeling on the floor – a demonstration of humility that has surprised and deeply moved the public. On the Saipan visit, he and the empress paid tribute not only to Japanese memorials, but to those erected for Korean war victims and American soldiers.

At the same time, the emperor has refrained from visiting Yasukuni Shrine, where the souls of war criminals, some of them Class-A, are consecrated – an omission that has rankled domestic conservative organizations.

As a symbol of the Japanese nation, the emperor has always maintained a strong image of passivity, but his actions appear to reflect his own firm intentions. But what are the origins of his guiding principles? A letter written 66 years ago may shed new light on this question.

I found the faded letter, typed in English and bearing the reference, “Crown Prince,” filed in obscurity in the vault of the Rockefeller Archive Center, an impressive 32-room mansion on the outskirts of New York city. Dated October 16, 1953, it was addressed to Takanobu Mitani, the Grand Chamberlain of the Imperial Household Agency. The author was John D. Rockefeller III, a prominent member of the Rockefeller family. 

“It is very good to know that the Crown Prince found his visit to our country both interesting and enjoyable,” Rockefeller wrote. “I feel it a real privilege to have had a small part in relation to his program.”

THE 19-YEAR-OLD Akihito had just departed the U.S. for home after completing an overseas journey that lasted more than six months. And the letter from Rockefeller reveals some details of the crown prince’s agenda, at least in the U.S. “I was terribly pleased to learn that His Highness had not only seen the stage show at the Music Hall but stayed for the movie Roman Holiday,” he wrote. “I only hope that the movie did not result in causing you any problems!”

What impact could a recently released Hollywood film have had on the young prince that was cause for concern? Looking back, it appears that the film could have had an emotional connection that other movies couldn’t have offered. The plot of the romantic film concerns Crown Princess Ann (played by Audrey Hepburn) of a fictional country, who, during a state visit to Rome, becomes frustrated with her tightly restricted schedule and secretly escapes her handlers.

By chance encounter, the princess meets American reporter Joe Bradley, played by Gregory Peck, who provides her with overnight accommodations at his apartment. The next morning, an astonished Princess Ann – reluctant to give up her newly acquired freedom, accompanies Bradley incognito on a scooter tour of Rome. The two sense the stirrings of romance but, in the end the Princess’s duty as a symbol to her people overrides her desire for freedom. 

Perhaps in his letter to the Grand Chamberlain, Rockefeller was showing concern that the young Japanese prince may have been stirred enough to imagine escaping from his own imperial demands.

After all, the time was only eight years after the war’s end, and Crown Prince Akihito was on a ground-breaking journey arranged around a visit to London for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, representing his father Emperor Hirohito. His itinerary was daunting: covering 14 countries, including France, Spain and the U.S. Though Japan had recently regained its independence with the ratification of the San Francisco Peace Treaty, the country was still viewed unsympathetically by many, and another aim of the crown prince’s journey was to repair Japan’s image as part of its reemergence onto the international scene.

DURING HIS VISIT TO New York City, a dinner party was held for the crown prince, hosted by the Japan Society, of which John D. Rockefeller III was president. Rockefeller also hosted the prince and his entourage at his family ranch in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. 

Before the arrival of his guest, Rockefeller sought the advice of Mrs. Elizabeth Gray Vining, an American woman who taught English to the crown prince in the immediate postwar period. It was apparent to many that Mrs. Vining had played a larger role than simply an English teacher, but had served in effect as an adviser to the Imperial family, especially the young prince.

He was 12 years old when she first encountered him. She found the crown prince polite and bright, but she was also under the impression that he lacked the initiative to act on his own. When prompted on where to go, what to do or what to talk about, he seemed to always defer to those around him. To rectify that, Vining felt a shortcut would impart him with the sense of having the right to freely make his own decisions. 

In her memoirs, titled Windows for the Crown Prince, Vining recalls: “in order to stir up the passivity which tended to leave all decisions, all initiative, to others, I began to say, ‘What shall we do first, dictation, conversation, reading?’ At first, he would demur, ‘You say,’ but after being prodded, he would generally choose dictation, which he liked least.” 

In accord with Vining’s views, Rockefeller instructed his staff to “give him his choice of the various things he could do at the ranch and let him plan his own activities there rather than to arrange them specifically and in advance.” 

During his stay at the ranch, the crown prince was able to enjoy dancing and fishing, and, upon being escorted to the nearby town, took a meal at a cafeteria while mingling with average citizens for the first time in his life.

AFTERWARDS, THE RANCH STAFF sent Rockefeller a six-page report, which gave a detailed description of crown prince’s behavior and reactions. Included are the following passages: “The Crown Prince was a different person, and as many members of the party has said to me, this has been the finest visit we have made in the United States. . . . He had no idea of the kind of people that live in the West and the way they live. So I am convinced that it was extremely worthwhile having the party here.”

That experience could have been a scene somewhat reminiscent of the fictitious Princess Ann in Roman Holiday. The report was also circulated to Elizabeth Gray Vining, and she later wrote an enthusiastic letter to Rockefeller. “What a wonderful experience it was for the Prince!...the freedom to make his own choices . . . the Crown Prince will remember with pleasure all the rest of his life – with what influence upon the history of the world, who can say?” 

Vining’s memoir also contained a prophetic remark about the Emperor-to-be. “I had seen a chubby small boy develop into a poised young man. What of that boy, who will some day be the Emperor of Japan? What promise does he offer for the future? He will not have political power, but in a free Japan he will have great moral influence. What kind of man will he be?”

She almost answers her own question in another section of the book: “He is aware of his destiny; he accepts it soberly. Cautious and deliberate, he has the true conservative’s ability upon occasion to break radically with tradition.” 

Emperor Akihito’s visits to Okinawa and other battlefields outside Japan, where he expressed his “deep remorse” for the war, in defiance of backlash from domestic conservative elements, was done from the posture of a constitutional monarch acting in accordance with his own will, which was precisely what Vining had encouraged the future Emperor to learn.

In the decades following his world tour, the young Crown Prince grew up, became monarch and senior statesman of Japan for the three decade-long Heisei Period, and is now on the threshold of abdication. While the Japanese Foreign Ministry declassified documents of the Crown Prince’s trip, records of his staying at the Rockefeller ranch and viewing of Roman Holiday are inexplicably missing. 

Does His Majesty still recall his experience viewing Roman Holiday in a darkened New York movie theater? If so, I would love to ask what his impressions were. ❶

Eiichiro Tokumoto, a former Reuters correspondent, is an author and investigative journalist.
This article is an excerpt from the original published in Shukan Shincho, and used with permission.

Published in: April 2019

Leave a comment



Go to top