Emperor Naruhito’s UK Visit to Begin with Thames Barrier Tour

Emperor Naruhito will begin his trip to the U.K. this week with a visit to the Thames Barrier, a site that holds special meaning for him. The retractable flood control gates on the River Thames may not be a typical tourist attraction, but the visit highlights the emperor’s deep connection to the waterway that defines London.

Naruhito’s interest in the Thames stems from his time as a graduate student at the University of Oxford 40 years ago, where he studied 18th-century commerce on the river. His experiences during those two years, detailed in his memoir “The Thames and I,” fostered a strong affection for Britain and its people.

“It would be impossible in Japan to go to a place where hardly anyone would know who I was,’’ Naruhito wrote. “It is really important and precious to have the opportunity to be able to go privately at one’s own pace where one wants.’’

Naruhito and Empress Masako, who also studied at Oxford, returned to the U.K. on Saturday for a weeklong visit that combines official state events with more personal visits to places that hold significance for the royal couple.

The visit coincides with the U.K.’s efforts to strengthen ties with Japan as it seeks to become a leading European nation in the Indo-Pacific region, according to John Nilsson-Wright, head of the Japan and Koreas program at the University of Cambridge.

“The U.K.-Japan relationship is hugely important. … It’s based on shared common experience. It’s based also on the affinity between our two peoples,’’ Nilsson-Wright said. “Britain and Japan can act as a source of stability and, hopefully, mutual reassurance at a time when political change is so potentially destabilizing.”

The trip, originally planned for 2020, was delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Emperor Naruhito later attended Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral.

The state visit begins on Tuesday, with King Charles III and Queen Camilla formally welcoming the emperor and empress before a ceremonial carriage ride to Buckingham Palace. Naruhito will also lay a wreath at the tomb of the unknown soldier in Westminster Abbey before attending a state banquet.

But before the official events commence, Naruhito will visit the Thames Barrier, a series of retractable steel gates that protect London from flooding while allowing ships to navigate the river. Following the state visit, the royal couple will have the opportunity to tour their former colleges at Oxford.

It was at Merton College that Naruhito, born Hironomiya Naruhito, was known simply as Hiro, a nickname that was easier for faculty and students to remember, as he recounts in “The Thames and I.”

One of his favorite aspects of Merton was the Middle Common Room, a gathering place for graduate students where he enjoyed coffee and conversations after lunch.

“These moments, with my fellow students, brief as they were, were very important for me,’’ Naruhito wrote.

Britain in the 1980s presented a unique perspective for Naruhito, a place that seemed to both respect the past and embrace the future. He recalls the peaceful coexistence of scholars in traditional caps and gowns alongside young people sporting punk rock attire.

“I did not feel that was out of the ordinary,’’ he said. “It seemed to me that both reflected the spirit of the place. This was, after all, a country which produced the Beatles and the miniskirt. I felt that while the British attach importance to old traditions, they also have the ability to innovate.’’

Naruhito also wrote about the novelty of walking through the streets of Oxford unnoticed, spending hours in the local records office conducting research, and having the freedom to shop and perform mundane tasks that most people take for granted.

He remembers climbing a hill northeast of the city to enjoy the view.

“It was best toward sunset,’’ he wrote. “I can never forget the moment when the silhouettes of the spires of Oxford one by one caught the evening light and seemed to float above the mists. This mystical sight, which has aroused so much admiration, is called Oxford’s dreaming spires.’’

But throughout his time in Oxford, the River Thames, flowing southeast from the city before emptying into the North Sea, was always present.

Naruhito’s fascination with river commerce began in his youth when Japan’s roads and rivers offered a sense of travel and freedom beyond the palace walls. So, when he arrived in Oxford, studying the Thames felt like a natural progression.

Looking back at the research papers he wrote 40 years ago, Naruhito is filled with nostalgia, he told reporters in Tokyo before returning to Britain.

“The memories of my time with the Thames come back to me,’’ he said. “The list goes on and on, including my hard work in collecting historical materials … the beautiful scenery around me that healed me from my fatigue from research, and the days I jogged along the river.’’