Robert Fulford's column about Prince Takamodo

(Globe and Mail, December 3, 1997)


One day in 1991 I heard someone at the Canadian Embassy in Tokyo call Prince Takamado "the Canadian prince." That description was purely figurative, of course. He's a cousin of the emperor of Japan and their family reaches back, at least in theory, to the dawn of history. If certain Canadians regard him as our prince, it's because he attended Queen's University in Kingston, because he still collects Inuit sculpture and speaks affectionately of Bruce Cockburn's records, and because he's generous about lending his imperial presence to Canadian events in Japan. Also, he met his wife at a Canadian diplomatic party, and they live with their three daughters in a section of the Imperial Palace compound just across the road from the Canadian embassy that Raymond Moriyama designed in 1991.

One of his friends calls Prince Takamado "the least regal of all the royal family." Unlike most princes, he holds a day job. Since 1981, when he returned from Canada, he's been working as an administrator for the Japan Foundation, which promotes Japanese culture around the world. He's obviously glad to be there. "This is daily life to me--a very important connection with real life." It troubles him, though, that princely duties eat into his time at the foundation. He's anxious not to turn into an ornament. "I'm a bit worried about becoming a nuisance rather than a useful staff member." He makes about 40 ribbon-cutting trips a year, usually inside Japan.

When we talked in the foundation offices, I asked him how he chose to go to Queen's. "The primary thing was to learn English," he began. "I had studied it for years, but that didn't mean I could speak. One of my brothers had gone to England and one to Australia, so it seemed logical I should go to North America. Canada was good for security reasons and I liked the idea of it." Queen's sounded manageable for a stranger. And it had few Japanese students--in Kingston he would have to speak English or not speak at all. He arrived there in 1978.

At age 22 he was on his own, for the first and probably the last time in his life--though an RCMP officer lurked in the background. He stayed with a doctor's family for three months and then moved into a graduate residence (the Mountie moved in next door). "I was expecting culture shock, but I adjusted easily. Those years, they were wonderful. It was much more difficult when I came back to my own culture."

He already had a law degree, and in Kingston he merely audited courses. He began at the Queen's law school, a mistake. Japanese and British law are so different that nothing connected. He also found himself drowning in Latin phrases, brand new to him--and not what he was there to learn. "I gave up on that." He audited psychology courses, and courses in the history of music. He travelled, skied in the Laurentians and the Rockies, made friends, and watched ballet, one of his great interests, the National Ballet in Toronto and Les Grands Ballets Canadiens in Montreal. He's still far more than a casual fan. When Ballet B.C. played Tokyo some years ago, he not only went to the performance but attended rehearsals as well. And in the 1980s, for two and a half years, he wrote about ballet for the Tokyo Shimbun, an experience that demonstrated his curiously limited life.

It would be unthinkable and scandalous for a Japanese prince to criticize a citizen; it would be outrageous if he criticized a foreigner. So the pieces he wrote every month on ballet were journalistic oddities, reviews with the negative parts left out. "I never called my writing criticism. Because I could not write anything bad or nasty, I tried to help people to appreciate the performance." There was a comic side to this, which he could appreciate as much as anyone: "Readers began to think that whatever I didn't mention must have been something that should have been criticized." To omit was to condemn. From his friends in the ballet world he often heard a question about something he'd ignored: "Was it that bad?" Eventually he found the work dull and gave it up.

His views of Canada, reinforced by recent visits, are unusual. Talking about buying habits, for instance, he remarked, "In Japan we go for brand names, designer collections. In Canada nobody worries about that sort of thing--they go for the quality." He seems to have struggled with the differences between Japan and Canada. In his first year in Canada he was impatient when the post office and the bank didn't work swiftly. "I was always thinking how much more efficient things were in Japan." His second year changed him. He decided Canada, more relaxed and easygoing, was also "more natural and humane." In his third year he came to a balanced understanding of the fact that a small country with many people inevitably would be different from a big country with few people. And yet, comparing the only two societies in which he's lived, he still says: "Which is more natural to human life? I think the Canadian way." Spoken like a Canadian prince.

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