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Sunday, Feb. 5, 2006

THE ASIAN BOOKSHELF

Crown Prince recalls his life at Oxford University


By EIJI SEKI
THE THAMES AND I: A Memoir of Two Years at Oxford, by the Crown Prince of Japan, translated by Hugh Cortazzi. Global Oriental, 150 pp., 2006, £30 (cloth).

"Thames and I" by the Crown Prince is a detailed account of the two years he spent at the University of Oxford in Britain. It is marked by penetrating insight into the history of the "town and gown" relationship between the university and the local communities, the "Matriculation Ceremony" (university initiation procedure), and his observations of Oxford's high street, church towers and famous buildings.

In research for his thesis "The Thames as Highway," he guides the reader through college archives and libraries, as well as the record offices of Oxfordshire and its neighboring counties.

The Crown Prince describes the excellent quality of the Oxford University education system, in particular the benefits of one-to-one tutorials. He comments on the college bars, another British institution viewed as unusual by the Crown Prince for playing an important role in nurturing social adeptness and the ability to express individual opinions.

He often digresses from his academic experience to a variety of other aspects of British life: the royal family, Parliament, time-honored customs and traditions, travel, music, theater, sport -- showing an avid interest in whatever caught his eye. He is candid, sometimes surprisingly so, in presenting his views.

His constant efforts to take advantage of all the opportunities at Oxford to maintain friendships and contacts, especially through sports, music and travel, are particularly impressive. A keen traveler, he journeyed far and wide across Britain -- from the Shetland Islands of Scotland to the Isle of Sark of the Channel Islands -- and he climbed the highest mountains. He also extended his trips to other European countries, creating a most entertaining travelogue.

Regardless of his title and future status, the Crown Prince lived a normal student life in two frugally furnished rooms. The bathroom water was far from adequate, both in volume and temperature. Although he felt the cold and the drafts coming through the cracks in the building, he did not allow the Japanese Embassy to take the matter up with college administrators.

He enjoyed routine student life such as bicycling through the streets in a T-shirt and jeans; standing in queues; doing laundry and ironing; shopping for wine for his guests; visiting pubs, discos, pizza and spaghetti places, fish-and-chip shops; and paying out of his own wallet.

Naturally there were occasions for "blunders" and embarrassment. But even those incidents seemed enjoyable, with the Crown Prince thinking that he would never experience anything like them in the future. There are many heartwarming episodes.

Through two fruitful years in Britain, the Crown Prince came to develop a "real affection" for the country. His feelings for the Thames and Oxford were strong enough for him to write, "I dearly wish that I could see the river again with my own eyes and relive the happy days of my youth beside the Thames."

His frank and emotional account of his final days before his departure from Heathrow airport are evocative. He left Britain with "a large void" in his heart, though a new page in his life was turning. It is significant that his grandfather, the Emperor Showa, had toured Britain for three weeks in 1921 and returned to Japan with a similarly strong and genuine fondness for the country and the royal family, an affection that stayed with him the rest of his life.

This book attests to the Crown Prince's achievements in Britain and his contributions to further cementing Anglo-Japanese relations. The British government, Oxford University and all concerned with his stay ensured that his two years were fruitful.

The final chapters, "The English People as I Saw Them" and "On Leaving Britain," contain much food for thought for the Japanese reader. The Prince of Wales says in the foreword, "The book shows a keen eye, a delicate sense of humour, and enviable desire to be involved in wide variety of activities and a power of description which give the reader interest and enjoyment." No words can better summarize these "enjoyable and perceptive Memoirs."

The elegant and charming translation by Hugh Cortazzi in this Global Oriental edition produces a text as fluent and natural as the original Japanese.

Eiji Seki is a former senior Foreign Ministry official who was posted in London when the Crown Prince was studying at Oxford.


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