Chichibu Setsuko (1909–1995)

views updated

Chichibu Setsuko (1909–1995)

Princess of Japan who was deeply involved in the restoration of ties of friendship between Britain and Japan. Name variations: Princess Chichibu; Chichibu no Miya Setsuko. Born Matsudaira Setsuko in Walton-on-Thames, England, on September 9, 1909; died on August 25, 1995; daughter of Matsudaira Tsuneo (a diplomat); educated in Western schools; married Prince Yasuhito Chichibu (d. 1953, a younger brother of Emperor Hirohito), in 1928; no children.

Likely the most Westernized member of the Japanese imperial family in her generation, Princess Setsuko Chichibu was a highly respected member of a clan that until 1945 were regarded in Japan as divine or semi-divine. She was born Matsudaira Setsuko in Walton-on-Thames, England, in 1909 when her diplomat father Matsudaira Tsuneo worked on assignment as attaché at the Japanese Embassy in London. Her upbringing would be thoroughly Western. At the age of eight months, she returned to Japan with her parents, where she was raised in a privileged environment. Though her father had renounced his inherited title thus technically making himself and his daughter commoners, the family continued to move in aristocratic circles, and Setsuko grew up in what was essentially an extremely restricted elite environment. In 1925, her father was appointed Japanese ambassador to the United States, and she moved with her family to Washington, D.C. Her Western-oriented education, which had begun in Japan, continued in Washington at the Friends School, a highly regarded institution run by the Quakers.

Setsuko's life changed dramatically several years after she had come to the United States. As an emissary for the Empress Dowager Sadako , Count Kabayama arrived in Washington with a proposal, suggesting that Setsuko marry Prince Yasuhito Chichibu, a younger brother of the emperor, Hirohito. The offer, which came as a complete surprise, was deeply upsetting for Setsuko; she had only met the prince briefly on a few occasions. Furthermore, she and her family were living the lives of commoners, had become familiar with Western ways, and she was unfamiliar with the rigid ceremonial patterns of the Japanese imperial court. But the empress dowager believed Setsuko to be the perfect match for the prince and refused to be dissuaded. Eventually, Setsuko and her parents accepted the proposal, and she was married to Prince Chichibu in September 1928.

Despite her fears, Setsuko's marriage proved to be a happy one. Both she and her husband were modern in their thinking (he had studied at Magdalen College, Oxford) and shared a love of sports. Although the prince taught at the Imperial Military Academy, he was not an extreme militarist and became alarmed by events in Japan in the 1930s. He was not a policymaker, and the prince and princess, who had no children, centered their lives on friends and travel. They visited the West on several occasions in the 1930s, the most important trip being in 1937 when they attended the coronation of King George VI as official representatives of Emperor Hirohito and the imperial Japanese government.

The drift toward war saddened both Princess Chichibu and her husband, and he received the news of the outbreak of war against the United States and Great Britain in December 1941 in stunned silence. By this time, he was already in poor health, suffering from overwork and the early stages of tuberculosis. Withdrawing from a world intent on destroying itself, the couple spent the rest of the war in their mountain villa in Gotemba, with a splendid view of the sacred Mount Fuji. The princess spent much of her time raising vegetables and wondering what had happened to their friends in the West.

The defeat of Japan in 1945 created a new, more democratic society in which the princess became one of the most active and respected members of the imperial family. After the death of her husband in 1953, she became increasingly active in various aspects of public life, serving as patron of the national anti-tuberculosis association and working to raise funds for the Japanese Red Cross. One particular interest of hers was a fund to provide for children who had been orphaned as the result of traffic accidents. Among the organizations dearest to her heart was the Japan-Britain Society. The princess succeeded her late husband as patron of this friendship organization, serving it well not only because she had been born in England and spoke English perfectly, but also because she had developed so many friendships with men and women in that far-off island nation. Whenever members of the British royal family visited Japan in the postwar years, they made a special point of visiting Princess Chichibu, who returned the courtesy by making numerous trips to Britain.

Despite her aristocratic roots, Princess Chichibu mixed with ordinary women and men and projected considerable charm and warmth on her foreign travels, thus helping to rebuild the ties of Japanese-British friendship that had been so badly damaged by the hatreds of World War II. One of the ways in which she endeared herself to Britishers was through her love of gardening. A knowledgeable gardener, for many years she grew English roses in Japan. When in Britain, she pleased her hosts by making long tours of their gardens, obviously enjoying the experience. Princess Chichibu published her memoirs in Japan in 1991, and they appeared in an English translation in 1996.


Chichibu no Miya Setsuko. The Silver Drum: A Japanese Imperial Memoir. Translated by Dorothy Britton. Folkestone, Kent: Global Books, 1996.

"Princess Chichibu," in The Times [London]. September 11, 1995, p. 21.

John Haag , Associate Professor, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia

More From