Japanese Emperor Naruhito is well-prepared and temperamentally suited to the role he assumed Wednesday after his father's abdication, said a friend from his time at the University of Oxford, reflecting on his early impressions of the royal figure then known as Prince Hiro.
"The Japanese people are fortunate they have him as the emperor, that he represents Japan," said Keith George, 57, an American lawyer from Charleston, West Virginia, who studied at Oxford in England for the same two years in the 1980s as Emperor Naruhito.
(Photo taken April 22, 2019, in Charleston, West Virginia, shows American lawyer Keith George holding a framed clipping from The New York Times showing a photograph of him speaking to Japan's Prince Hiro, now Emperor Naruhito, during the 1983 entrance ceremony for the University of Oxford.)
"Monarchies in some countries have scandals and erode moral standards, (but) Hiro doesn't have that at all," George told Kyodo News, describing the new emperor as a "perfect fit" to "maintain tradition but also respect change" in Reiwa, the new Japanese imperial era which began with the new emperor's enthronement.
George and the prince, whose official name in his college days was Hironomiya, first met in 1983 at the university's matriculation ceremony where they were placed alongside each other by name in alphabetical order. A photo of the two sharing a moment of levity later appeared on the front page of The New York Times.
"I was surprised because there were hundreds of photographers in front of us. Hiro said to me, 'You will get used to this,'" George recalled.
The future lawyer then speculated the two could induce a barrage of camera flashes by leaning in and staging a conversation.
"We did it and that worked. We laughed. He has a good sense of humor (and) I thought we would be good friends."
In the New York Times' coverage, a clipping of which George has framed, the two men were photographed smiling during the brief exchange.
While living in adjacent dormitory rooms, the friends enjoyed playing music -- the prince on his viola as George improvised country-style tunes on a guitar -- and going out to a student pub where George remembers the prince delighting in mundane things that his sheltered life had denied him, like, for example, handling money.
("Prince Hiro" at Oxford University in October 1983.)
U.S. media at the time reported that his grandfather Emperor Hirohito only handled money personally once in his life. The young Prince Hiro also treasured the new experience of doing his own laundry during his graduate studies in England.
At Oxford's Merton College, the prince worked on a thesis paper related to 18th-century navigation and traffic on the River Thames and later wrote a memoir about his time in England titled "The Thames and I" in the English translation.
In 1985, a few weeks after his Oxford stint ended, the prince traveled to the United States and spent a night as a guest of George's family in a quiet mountain town about two and a half hours by car outside of Charleston.
"His life would be totally different in Japan," George said. "There was a certain sadness of losing the freedom that he had in the university, but at the same time he said he was gratefully accepting his duties."
"He was prepared to assume his duty to be the crown prince and eventually the emperor -- it was very clear."
The Japanese royal officially became crown prince in 1991 and married rising diplomat Masako Owada, now Empress Masako, in 1993 after her own two-year period of studying international relations at Oxford.
George has been able to visit with the prince a few times in Japan, including at an official wedding celebration for the royal couple. The American has since released a country music album featuring some of the songs he played with the prince, and his eldest daughter is the same age as Princess Aiko, Emperor Naruhito and Empress Masako's only child.
"After the enthronement, the Japanese people will (get to) know him better," said George, who has maintained contact with his old friend through occasional letters and phone calls. "He is kind, honorable and caring -- he will never dishonor his people and his country."
The former Emperor Akihito has been lauded for a 30-year reign in which he sought to bolster relations with neighboring countries that suffered as a result of Japan's wartime aggression.
With all eyes on the 59-year-old emperor to see how he will take up his father's legacy, public sentiment seems initially to be in his favor. A Kyodo News survey conducted just after Emperor Naruhito's ascension found that over 82 percent of respondents had a fondness for their new emperor.