The Prince and I

In 1956 Rodgers and Hammerstein produced one of the great musical films of its time which starred Yul Brynner as the King of Siam (Thailand) and Deborah Kerr who was appointed tutor of the royal children.

In that very same year, with no connection one to another, I received a letter from Takahito Mikasa, Prince of Japan and youngest brother of Emperor Hirohito, the 124th emperor of Japan.

How did it begin that I had received a letter from His Royal Highness. Prince Mikasa in 1956 ?

I had met with a visiting scholar from Japan, Professor Mitsuoko of Fukuoka University. He was very interested in the Hebrew Bible (in English translation) and was staying at International House near Columbia University in New York City.

I was also a resident there while doing filing jobs at the Consulate General of Israel under the strict guidance of the Consul-General Esther Herlitz , who later became Israel’s first female ambassador posted to the Embassy in Denmark. .

The Japanese professor and I struck a warm friendship. He asked many questions about Jewish laws, culture, traditions, beginnings of the Hebrew tribes in ancient Israel, birth of the Zionist movement and modern history of the State of Israel.

One day in our discussions he informed me that a royal prince, brother of Emperor Hirohito of Japan, was a Hebrew and Semitic language scholar in addition to being thoroughly acquainted with the Hebrew bible. During the war years he was stationed in China and met frequently with members of the Jewish community in the synagogue of Shanghai. He was fascinated by the religious services in Hebrew.

The professor suggested that I should send a letter to the prince informing him of my similar interests. I thought at first that Professor Mitsuoko was joking but at a later time he showed me several documents in Japanese which he translated for me . Among them was a post-war photo of the prince, looking very royal in his palace home.

I agreed to write a letter and submitted it to the professor for his approval before mailing it to the Tokyo address he had given to me. He graciously approved my typewritten letter and, taking it from my hands, he scribbled on the reverse side some words in Japanese. This was, he explained, his personal remarks that it was he who suggested that I write the letter. It went out by airmail the very next day.

Several weeks later I received a thick envelope containing three folded typewritten pages with the signature of His Royal Highness Prince Mikasa in Japanese and undersigned in English.

He had been very excited to have received my letter and he expressed deep thanks. He asked what Hebrew texts I used in my classrooms for my beginning students of modern Hebrew. He asked if it would be possible to send him a volume of the Hebrew Pentateuch (the Five Books of Moses) with the commentaries in Hebrew of Rashi. He would make arrangements for me to deliver it to the Japanese Consulate General in New York City for shipping to the prince by diplomatic courier.
I was happy that I was able to fulfill his request. One cannot refuse a request from a royal prince !

His enthusiasm excited me. And in his letter he asked if I would agree to come to Japan as a lecturer in Hebrew language and Old Testament literature in the. Department of Semitic and Middle East studies at Fukuoka University. If I would agree he would be very glad to make arrangements to proceed

Somehow, unknown to him, the university had a long policy of not employing unmarried members of the teaching staff.

I was then still unmarried and Prince Mikasa was unable to change the long-time policy of the university.

He was extremely apologetic and humbly hoped for my understanding. Both of us were disappointed.

I never met His Royal Highness personally but I still treasure his letter which my younger daughter hides for sake-keeping. The Prince and I never met.

But his life was a fascination. A Japanese member of the Royal family had given many years of his scholarly life in mastering Biblical Hebrew and the Hebrew narratives in the Jewish Bible.

I never dared to inquire if, when meeting with his brother, the Emperor Hirohito, in the formal throne room of the Royal palace, if he greeted the Emperor with an “ohayou gozaimasu” or with a “shalom”.

Rodgers and Hammerstein had their “King and I.” And for one exciting time I had my “Jewish” Japanese Royal Prince, His Highness Takahito Mikasa.

He died in a Tokyo hospital on October 27, 2016. He was 100 years old.

“Yasuraka ni nemuru”. Rest in peace.

About the Author
Esor Ben-Sorek is a retired professor of Hebrew, Biblical literature & history of Israel. Conversant in 8 languages: Hebrew, Yiddish, English, French, German, Spanish, Polish & Dutch. Very proud of being an Israeli citizen. A follower of Trumpeldor & Jabotinsky & Begin.
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