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Country Gentleman: The beginning of a new era

A marsh marigold is seen in the Afan Woodlands. (Photo courtesy of the C. W. Nicol Afan Woodland Trust)

I came to Japan for the very first time in the 37th year of the Showa era. I became a Japanese citizen in the eighth year of Heisei. I hope and pray that our new era will continue in the gentle wisdom, peace, and compassion of our dear former Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko.

I was born in Britain in 1940, when World War II had begun. At the time, nobody could have imagined that the little Welsh boy would spend not only the greater part of his life in then-enemy Japan, but even become a Japanese citizen. Moreover, this foreign-born citizen has had three opportunities to speak at length and in private with the now former Emperor and Empress of Japan.

My first meeting with Their Majesties was in February 2011. I had come to Tokyo from snowy Kurohime for an audience at the Imperial Palace. These meetings are supposed to be strictly private, but I feel that it would not be such a bad break in protocol to say that we talked mostly about woodland wildlife (especially the tanuki that have made their home in the Imperial grounds), about woodland programs for abused and neglected children, and about my native Wales. Their Majesties were well informed and knowledgeable about all topics, and even though my heart seemed about to burst with subdued nervous excitement they made me feel at ease. Nobody could be more kind and charming.

My British family and I have always been royalists. In 1969 I had the honour to spend a whole day at Lake Abijata (famous for flamingoes) in Ethiopia with Prince Philip, and in 2008 HRH Charles, Prince of Wales, came to visit our Woodland Trust here in northern Nagano despite the fact that in order to gain Japanese citizenship I had to formally renounce British and Canadian citizenship. This in no way diminishes my esteem for the British royal family, but I must say that one of the proudest if not the proudest aspect of being Japanese is having been a citizen during the Heisei era. The now Emperor Emeritus and Empress Emerita are the most compassionate and noble couple I have ever met. Nobody has done more or worked harder to further the image of Japan, both at home and abroad.

In June 2016 Their Majesties made an official visit to Nagano and I was able to guide them through our woods, very much on my toes and a bit nervous about questions, because they are so much more knowledgeable about woodland flora than I am. In May of Heisei 29 (2017), both my wife and I were invited for a private talk with the then Emperor and Empress, sharing tea, a special carrot salad, a delicious non-alcoholic plum cordial and bouillon soup. Their Majesties also took us on a tour of the ancient woods in the palace grounds where lovely purple iris bloom around an old pond, where a heron stands sentinel in the frog-populated shallows.

This time we had a full hour and 30 minutes, discussing all kinds of subjects, but a topic that especially resounds in my mind is the deep feelings that His Majesty has for the people and culture of Okinawa. As it happens, my wife and I met during the 1975 Okinawa International Ocean Exposition, when then Crown Prince Akihito and Crown Princess Michiko visited Okinawa for the first time. In 1993, he became the first ruling Japanese monarch to make an official visit to Okinawa in order to honour the war dead. How many people are aware that the former Emperor has such a profound regret for the war and respect for Okinawan culture that he writes poems in Uchinaaguchi, the native tongue of the Ryukus?

May I join with everybody in wishing them both a long and happy retirement.

("Country Gentleman" is a regular column by author and conservationist C.W. Nicol)

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