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Britain Welcomes the Emperor and Empress of Japan

In October 1971 Emperor Hirohito and his wife arrived in Britain for “their historic three day state visit”.

Documentary 1971 13 mins


In October 1971 Emperor Hirohito and his wife arrived in Britain for “their historic three day state visit” - the occasion was historic because it was the first ‘state’ visit to Britain by Hirohito, who at the time had been Emperor of Japan for 45 years (he had previously visited Britain on a more ‘informal’ basis in 1921 whilst Crown Prince). On hand to capture these unique events were the cameras of Movietone, cameras that were paid for and commissioned by the COI; as such this film represents the official government record of the visit (an important point that will be returned to later). In the film we follow the Emperor and Empress as they enjoy the hospitality of the Queen and State. The standard protocol of state visits is adhered to: on arrival a greeting by the Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh and Prime Minister; a horse drawn carriage to Buckingham Palace; a state banquet (with a reciprocal one at the Japanese embassy); various guided tours; a Lord Mayor’s banquet. The Queen and her family are shown playing their roles with practiced ease and the film’s commentary enthusiastically emphasises the growing friendship between the two nations.

Forging strong political, cultural and commercial ties is of course the raison d'etre of most (if not all) state visits, and this was no exception to that golden rule. The huge economic challenges that faced Japan in the aftermath of WWII made it keen to foster good relationships with Europe and the USA. In turn, Japan’s burgeoning economy and influence made it an attractive proposition for the West. All the stops were therefore pulled out to make Hirohito’s visit a success; given his role as Japan’s head of state during WWII (and there are differing views as regards his culpability) such red carpet treatment was unsurprisingly controversial. Files from the Foreign Office itself touch upon the controversy, they note that the “public attitude towards the visit was marked by coolness. The routes were only fairly well lined with onlookers but there was no applause." It was also reported that former PoWs turned their backs on Hirohito as his entourage went by. However, don’t forget that Britain Welcomes the Emperor and Empress of Japan is the ‘official’ record of the visit and as such none of this is immediately evident from viewing the film; look closely and you may notice how thin and unanimated the crowds are in places but this is amply compensated for by strategic editing, warm colour photography and an overwhelmingly positive commentary - the COI and Movietone applying a bit of realpolitik to their film making if you like. Nevertheless, even with that caveat in place this film remains an important and fascinating historical document. This government film is a public record, preserved and presented by the BFI National Archive on behalf of The National Archives, home to more than 1,000 years of British history.