The Queen’s actual birthday is on 21 April. She will be 92. She has been on the throne for 66 years and is the oldest and longest-reigning British monarch ever. For most of us, it feels as if she has been a constant backdrop to our lives: four out of five of the British population were born during her reign.
Thirteen British prime ministers have held office during that time, starting with Winston Churchill, and 13 US presidents. There have been 29 Japanese prime ministers during the same period, starting with Shigeru Yoshida, grandfather of current Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso. The Queen is actually the head of state of 16 realms, ranging from large countries such as Australia and Canada, to small island nations such as Tuvalu, in the Pacific Ocean.
Visitors to my residence are greeted by a smiling portrait of the Queen, taken by photographer David Bailey CBE in 2014. As an ambassador, you are the representative overseas of Queen Elizabeth II, so you get the opportunity to have a private audience at the palace before your posting. For my wife Sarah and me it was a very special moment. Her Majesty talked warmly of her visit to Japan in 1975 and of her ties with Japan’s Imperial Family.
The Queen also has an official birthday on the second Saturday in June, chosen because British weather tends to be a bit better then. British embassies overseas are allowed to choose to host their annual Queen’s Birthday Party around either the actual or official birthday. This year we are going for June.
Flying the flag
St George’s Day, meanwhile, falls on 23 April. The choice as England’s patron saint, of a Roman soldier from Turkey who died in fourth-century Palestine, is not an obvious one. But we are not alone. He is also patron saint of seven other countries, ranging from Ethiopia to Greece and Lithuania, mainly because his name became synonymous with bravery during the crusades. He has been our patron saint since 1350.
The red cross flag of St George came to England via the crusades. It is much more prominent on churches and other buildings in Britain nowadays than it used to be when I was young. Some people say this is a response to devolution in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Others date the change back to 1996, when we hosted the UEFA European Football Championship. I remember how the flag was everywhere as England made it to the semi-finals, only to lose to Germany on penalties, in what has become a tradition. St George’s Day tends to have less prominence than the national days of the other home nations—St Andrew’s of Scotland, St David’s of Wales, and St Patrick’s of Ireland—and there are fewer branches of the Royal Society of St George overseas. Perhaps because the English make up 85% of Britain, they feel less need to assert a separate identity.
Shakespeare’s birthday is on 23 April. He was a contemporary of William Adams, the first Englishman in Japan, who arrived here in the year Hamlet was first performed. Shakespeare continues to influence artists in Japan, as all around the world. Whenever I address Japan–British societies around the country, I’m sure to bump into a Shakespeare scholar from the local university.
And on 25 April, I will be joining my Australian and New Zealand counterparts for the Anzac day ceremony at the beautiful, tranquil Commonwealth War Cemetery in Hodogaya near Yokohama.
HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO QUEEN ELIZABETH II