The royal with the dragon tattoo forms part of palace exhibition

Diaries detailing how the future King George V had a dragon and a tiger tattooed on his arms during a visit to Japan are to form part of a new exhibition at Buckingham Palace.

Japan: Courts and Culture will tell the story of the diplomatic, artistic and cultural exchanges between Britain and Japan from the reigns of James I to Queen Elizabeth II.

The Queen’s grandfather, Prince George of Wales – the future George V who reigned from 1910 to 1936 – and his brother, Prince Albert Victor, visited Japan as teenagers in 1881.

George V
King George V who was tattooed in Japan when he was about 16 (PA)

The young princes were serving as midshipmen aboard HMS Bacchante and were granted shore leave to meet the Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken.

They returned with presents for their family, including a teapot and cups for their father, Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, and with diplomatic gifts from the Emperor – as well as their own permanent reminders of the trip.

According to the official diary of the tour, compiled by their tutor, the Reverend John Dalton, the princes had their arms tattooed during their stay to Japan – Albert Victor with “a couple of storks” and George with a dragon and a tiger.

Prince George’s tattoos – one on each arm – were chosen to signify both the East and the West.

In George’s own handwritten diary – a facsimile copy of which will also be on show – he revealed he was inked with a “large dragon in blue and red writhing all down the arm”.

George V's diary
Prince George’s diary recorded being tattooed in Japan (Royal Collection Trust/Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019/PA)

He wrote: “We have spent a very pleasant week on shore up at Nara & Kioto (sic), we saw a great deal in the time but we were not long enough, it was too hurried.

“Nearly every body on board has been tattooed. I have got a dragon on one arm done at Tokio (sic) & a tiger on the other arm done at Kioto (sic).”

No photographs of the princes’ tattoos are held by the Royal Collection, but George’s diary gave further details of his own experience, writing: “(The tattooer) does a large dragon in blue and red writhing all down the arm in about three hours.

“He first sketches the outline on the skin in Indian ink and water, and then pricks in the colours required, blue or red, with little instruments that look like camel-hairbrushes, only instead of hairs they consist of so many very minute needles.

“One man mixes the colours and the other tattooes, holding the instrument in the right hand and grasping your arm with the left, while he tightens the surface of the skin on which the drawing is to be made between his thumb and fore-finger.

“We did not find the pricking hurt at all.”

The teapot
Prince Albert Victor and Prince George also brought back a Japanese teapot for their father in 1881 (Royal Collection Trust/ Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019/PA)

He revealed that “the man who did most of our party was beautifully tattooed over the whole of his body, and the effect of these Japanese drawings in various colours and curves on his glistening skin was like so much embroidered silk”.

The prince acknowledged that, under the Meiji government, the custom of tattooing had been prohibited, but two artists were allowed to come to their room.

The tradition remained particularly popular among seamen and other foreign visitors to Japan.

Exhibition curator, Rachel Peat told the PA news agency: “The two young princes were keen to experience a wide range of Japanese art and customs during their visit to Japan.

“As well as travelling by rickshaw, eating with chopsticks and meeting prominent painters of the day, they embraced the vogue for tattooing which was popular among sailors and other visitors to Japan at this time.

“This was only the second British royal visit to Japan, and the princes’ enthusiasm reflects the broader British interest in a country which still remained relatively unknown and mysterious.

“The visit made a lasting impression on the future King George V, who would later speak with fondness of the warm reception he received.”

It has been said it was the prince’s father the Prince of Wales, the future Edward VII, who instructed Rev Dalton to allow the princes to be tattooed.

Edward VII already had his own body artwork – a Jerusalem Cross – which he had done while in the Holy Land in 1862.

  • King Edward VII, as the Prince of Wales - a Jerusalem Cross on his arm in Jerusalem in 1862
  • Crown Prince Frederik of Denmark - a shark on his leg and arm tattoo meaning pingu in tribute to his Navy days
  • Lady Amelia Windor, granddaughter of the Duke and Duchess of Kent - three tattoos including a small tiger on her back

Prince George does not mention the name of his tattooist, but some sources suggest it may have been Karakusa Gonta, who was the foremost tattooist in Japan at that time.

It has often been claimed that it was famous tattooist Hori Chiyo, but there is no firm evidence for this.

The Royal Collection contains one of the finest holdings of Japanese works of art in the western world.

Japanese jars
Two 17th century hexagonal jars, believed to be from Mary II’s collection at Hampton Court Palace (Royal Collection Trust/Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019/PA)

Items include rare examples of porcelain, lacquer, armour and embroidered screens.

The exhibition, which will go on show in The Queen’s Gallery in June next year, is described as offering a unique insight into the relationship between the imperial and royal courts over a period of 300 years.

It will feature armour sent to James I by Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu, the military leader who governed Japan on behalf of the imperial family, in 1613.

Japanese armour
Samurai armour sent to James I by Shogun Tokugawa Hidetada in 1613 (Royal Collection Trust/Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019/PA)

The formation of the East India Company in 1600 paved the way for direct contact between Japan and England.

In 1613, the first English ship to reach Japanese shores was captained by John Saris, who brought with him letters and gifts from James I for Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu.

Saris returned with a letter granting the English permission to live and trade in Japan, and with gifts for the King.

These included the samurai armour, the earliest to arrive in Britain and the first surviving non-European work of art to enter the Royal Collection.

To mark the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953, the Emperor Showa (Hirohito) sent the monarch a cosmetic box.

The cosmetic box
A cosmetic box, dating from 1890-1905, sent to the Queen by the Emperor Showa to mark her coronation (Royal Collection Trust/Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019/PA)

It is decorated with a heron by the great lacquer artist Shirayama Shosai, who held the prestigious title of ‘Living National Treasure’.

Japan: Courts and Culture will be at The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace from June 12 to November 8 2020.

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