Diplomats in despair over Edward's flamboyant friend

The Japanese establishment may snub the Prince's fund-raising trip, writes Richard Lloyd Parry
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AT FIRST, Prince Edward's private visit to Japan next week must have seemed like an excellent idea. As a trustee of the Duke of Edinburgh's Award International Foundation, the Prince has often had contact with rich Japanese benefactors of his father's charity.

During his week-long trip, beginning next Saturday, the Queen's youngest son is scheduled to take part in a range of events in Tokyo and central Japan, attended by some of the richest and most colourful members of the Japanese plutocracy, including a gala dinner in Tokyo, a traditional tea ceremony in Kyoto, and a golf tournament named in his honour. The aim is to raise the profile of the charity - along with millions of yen.

But, according to sources close to the British embassy, the visit may jeopardise both the image of the Royal Family and months of work by diplomats in repairing the damage done by recent scandals.

By the standards of most royal visits, the organisation of the trip has been chaotic, and several events have been cancelled after embarrassing rebuffs from organisations approached for donations.

British diplomats are concerned that flamboyant businessmen are taking advantage of the visit to gain prestige from association with the Prince. This, they fear, will further alienate the notoriously snobbish Japanese establishment.

Apart from philanthropic motives, and genuine pleasure at the prospect of meeting the Prince, several of his hosts are open about the business benefits to be gained from his visit. Two days after his arrival, he will attend a gala ball at the Tokyo Nikko hotel, a newly-opened development on Tokyo Bay which faced disaster after a city Expo planned to launch the area was cancelled. Banquet facilities are likely to be provided at a reduced rate, according to the ball's organiser, "Rocky" Aoki, a former Olympic wrestler who founded the Benihana international restaurant chain, which has three outlets in London.

"When I think about it, though, they should provide it all free," Mr Aoki says. "It's their first royal gala and first big party and it will be very good for the hotel."

Mr Aoki became briefly famous in Britain when he attempted to buy Red Rum, the legendary Grand National winner, for pounds 500,000 to publicise the opening of one of his restaurants.

British officials, who investigated the background of another of the prince's hosts for fear that he might have shady connections, appear to have washed their hands of the visit, which has received almost no advance publicity.

Apart from a single event in Tokyo attended by the British ambassador, David Wright, there will be little participation by the embassy, which is not supplying transport for much of the trip.

Japanese organisers say diplomats in Tokyo have instructed them to publicise events only locally, and the Prince has resorted to borrowing Rolls- Royces from his hosts.

From early on in the planning of the trip, the Foreign Office has had little control of Prince Edward's programme. On what is described as an "unofficial working visit", he will pay private calls in his capacity as a TV producer, including meetings at Fuji Television and Sony. But it is the fund-raising part of the visit that is causing the greatest anxiety.

Poor co-ordination left many of those approached by the Prince's representatives baffled about the seriousness of the visit. Suntory, the huge food and drink corporation based in Osaka, was indirectly asked for a donation; but the British consulate in Osaka knew nothing about the visit, and Suntory refused. Approaches were also made to companies affiliated with the giant Matsushita group, according to a company spokesman. But the company had just made a pounds 200,000 donation to another royal charity, The Prince's Youth Business Trust, patronised by Prince Charles, and the request was declined.

Further embarrassment was caused in Kobe where a joint fund-raising event was planned for victims of last January's earthquake and the Duke of Edinburgh's Award International Foundation. Kobe citizens were to put up the money for the event, and more than 100 tickets were offered for sale. But in the demoralised aftermath of the earthquake, local people were unwilling to contribute and the event was cancelled.

Diplomatic sources complain that during an advance trip to Japan at the end of February, plans for Prince Edward's itinerary changed constantly, and organisers missed a number of appointments. With the trip imminent, several of his hosts still seemed vague on important details when the Independent on Sunday spoke to them last week.

"I heard that the Prince is coming, but is it true?" asked Imakichi Furusho, a textile maker who has agreed to lend his Rolls-Royce to the Prince. "To tell you the truth, I've never heard of the foundation. If I'm put in the situation when I'm asked for a donation I expect that I will, but at the moment I haven't decided."

The activities of the British royals attract great interest in the Japanese media: the Princess of Wales's visit to Tokyo early last year drew crowds, despite coming soon after the Kobe earthquake. But recent scandals have also been widely reported. The Princess's controversial Panorama interview led the national TV news, and was broadcast in full within a few hours of being shown in Britain.

The growing republican debate in Britain has also been reported, and British diplomats have found themselves increasingly on the defensive.

The British ambassador, Mr Wright, is a former deputy private secretary to Prince Charles. Since he took up his post a few weeks ago, diplomats have been pinning their hopes of restoring the Royal Family's tarnished image on a planned state visit to Britain by Emperor Akihito in 1998, being negotiated with the Imperial Household Agency (IHA), which strictly regulates all royal matters. But the IHA is notorious for its snobbishness and hauteur: the fear is that Prince Edward's visit will further alienate arch-conservatives in the Japanese establishment, and indirectly hamper the rehabilitation of Britain's good name.

In Kyoto, the ancient capital, the Prince plans to visit famous local sightseeing spots, including the city's best-known Buddhist temple, Kiyomizu. But even this has been thrown into doubt by a local controversy. The Prince will stay at the new Kyoto Hotel, the focus of intense anger among local Buddhist priests who say its great height breaches planning regulations and is an eyesore. A large sign outside Kiyomizu bars entry to anyone staying at the hotel. A temple spokesman was unable to say last week whether it would make an exception in the case of a Prince.