Britain and Meiji Japan
by Mr Adrian Thorpe CMG FRSA

Date: Thursday 9 January 2020

British involvement in the modernisation of Japan, the end of the Shogunate and its replacement by rule by the Emperor

The content of Adrian Thorpe's talk is included below

Britain and Meiji Japan

From 1600 to 1867 Japan was administered by the Tokugawa Shoguns from their power-centre in Edo (now Tokyo). In theory they were temporary military governors granted their authority by the Emperor in Kyoto, whose rule was however largely symbolic. From 1639 the Shogunate enforced a “closed country” policy prohibiting almost all trade or other contact with the outside world. The arrival in 1853 of US warships under Commodore Matthew Perry, determined to force the end of this policy, triggered a civil war which ended with the fall of the Tokugawas in 1867 and the assumption of supreme rule by Emperor Meiji in 1868. During this period Britain assisted the “reform” faction, and when the young Emperor began an ambitious programme to remodel Japan as a modern industrial state with Western institutions British advisers and planners were heavily involved. In his lecture Adrian Thorpe will give an account of how this came about.

Adrian Thorpe graduated from Cambridge and entered HM Diplomatic Service in September 1965. Much of his career was spent in the Far East including a total of 14 years in the British Embassy Tokyo – first as Information Officer, then as First Secretary (Economic), and finally as Minister (Deputy to the Ambassador). He speaks Japanese – as well as German, French and Spanish – and has travelled all over the country.

He and his wife Miyoko married in 1968 and have lived near Sherborne since retirement in 2002.


The content of Adrian's talk is included below:




I want to talk to you this evening about a very remarkable man. His name was Mutsuhito, and he became Emperor of Japan in 1867 when he was fifteen. He asserted his authority as Emperor from the start, reversed policies that had been in force for centuries and started Japan on its progress towards modernisation and industrialisation. Of course he did not achieve this all by himself. He was supported by a small group of far-sighted politicians, and his Government recruited many foreign advisers, experts, engineers, teachers and businessmen, a lot of whom were British. His contribution to the way the world changed, for better or for worse, in the second half of the 19th century was very great. He is known now as the Emperor Meiji. His assumption of power in 1867 is called in English the Meiji Restoration, but that is not really the right word. It was rather a shift of power back from those claiming to rule in the Emperor’s name towards the Emperor himself and his chosen allies: a coup d’état rather than a restoration.

But before I can tell you how this remarkable change came about, we have to go further back in history and ask what kind of country Meiji inherited, and changed so completely, in 1867. Why had Japan, for over two centuries between the 1630s and the 1860s, maintained a policy of almost complete isolation from the rest of the world, imposing the death penalty on any foreigner who attempted to enter the country and on any Japanese who was caught trying to leave it?

There had been contact, peaceful and otherwise, over the centuries between Japan and its continental neighbours China and Korea, but the first contact with the Western world was in 1543 when a Portuguese ship reached the southern island Kyūshū. This contact was the extreme eastern extent of the Portuguese Age of Discoveries launched long before by Prince Henry the Navigator, younger son of King John I and his English wife Philippa of Lancaster. Soon many Portuguese expeditions were reaching Japan, bearing traders, missionaries and would-be colonial administrators from Portuguese settlements in Macau and Goa. Japanese paintings like these are known as nanbanbyōbu or “Screens showing Southern Barbarians”. The Portuguese were followed before long by Spanish expeditions and then by traders from the Netherlands and even from England.

At the time Japan was going through a “Time of Troubles” as powerful families fought each other for control. In a way, it was like our own Wars of the Roses, and produced a similar result: the great clans fought each other to exhaustion until a relatively minor family, the Tokugawa, were the last left standing – just as the near-extinction of the Houses of York and Lancaster cleared the way for a minor Welsh family, the Tudors. But so long as the country was in turmoil the great lords welcomed the new products and above all modern weapons that the newcomers had to sell – though it did not take the Japanese long to find out how to copy Portuguese guns and improve on them.

When the Tokugawa at last established themselves around 1600, ruling Japan on behalf of the Emperor with the title of Shōgun or Commander-in-Chief, they came to see these Portuguese and Spanish intruders as a threat to Japan’s integrity and to their own rule. Foreign interference in the peace which the Tokugawa wished to enforce, the propagation of the alien religion of Christianity which undermined the feudal link between ordinary Japanese and their rulers, and the abduction of Japanese taken away into slavery in Portugal and Brazil – these things were increasingly intolerable. Japan’s new rulers could see for themselves what had happened elsewhere in the region, in the Philippines for example, and if they could not the Dutch and the English were happy to explain it to them: first you get the traders, then you get the missionaries, and soon enough you get the colonial rulers and their soldiers.

So in the 1630s a radical decision was taken: all foreigners were to be expelled, Christianity was to be eradicated, and Japan was to be self-contained and self-sufficient. The only exceptions were small numbers from Holland and Britain: as Protestant countries they were seen as more interested in making money rather than saving souls. A tiny outpost of the Dutch East India Company was permitted to remain on Dejima, an artificial island in Nagasaki Bay. The British also stayed on for a while, trying to strike their own trade deal, but found after seven years that it was much more difficult and took much longer than they had imagined, gave up and went away.

Under this new policy Japan entered on more than two centuries of domestic peace and prosperity, working within a rigid social system of four classes below the provincial rulers: first the warrior caste or samurai, next but well below them the peasants who produced food on which the country depended, then the artisans, and at the bottom of the heap merchants or businessmen who were regarded as basically parasitic. To begin with at least rice was seen as the country’s wealth and means of taxation: the stipend of a samurai was calculated as a multiple of the quantity of rice required to keep one man under arms for a year. But not surprisingly in this long period of peace a monetary economy developed and it was normal for those entitled to a regular hand-out of rice to cash it in with dealers in Osaka, the world’s first Commodities and Futures Exchange.

There were over 200 provincial ruling families or daimyō (which means simply “great name”). The Tokugawa developed a complex system to keep them under control and deprive them of wealth which they might use to fight with each other or against Tokugawa rule. The families were required to maintain residences in the Shōguns’ capital Edo (now Tokyo), and every two or three years they had to make a hugely expensive pilgrimage to Edo with their retainers and family to pay their respects. Between these highly competitive events, a daimyō’s heir was expected to reside at the Shōgun’s court, in theory an honoured guest being educated appropriately to his rank but in reality a hostage for good behaviour. The quarrelsome and under-employed samurai accompanying the daimyō to Edo, armed with the two swords, one long one short, which only they were entitled to carry in public, were often a cause of public disorder and the famous “pleasure quarter” of Edo was established to mop up their spare cash.

So long as the Shōguns kept a firm grip on power, and maintained the “closed country” policy strictly, the system worked well and peace was maintained. But it didn’t always work. Some of the provincial daimyō were able to establish strong regional bases. One of the grandest were the Shimazu clan who came to control most of the wealthy southern island of Kyūshū either from their own domain of Satsuma or through control over neighbouring clans. Being close to the southern tip of Korea the region had been a main point of contact with the outside world for centuries before the “closed country” was enforced – and it included the port of Nagasaki and the miniature island enclave occupied by the Dutch.

The Dutch did not only trade in goods, they also provided a tiny window onto the knowledge of the West. Imported books were subject to censorship but that was mainly to enforce regulations against the entry into Japan of Bibles or other Christian texts. Managing this dangerous group of foreigners was the job of a special corps of Japanese officials trained in the Dutch language. Through them the rulers of southern Japan came to realise the value of developments in the West, or “Dutch knowledge” as it was called, of which Japan in its isolation knew nothing. Technical developments of all kinds, especially in armaments, were especially attractive but so also were scientific advances in everything from astronomy to medicine. This growing awareness of being left behind was not limited to the Shimazu clan and their followers. Like the daimyō, the Opperhoofd or head of the Dutch outpost and his staff were required to make a periodical pilgrimage to pay their respects to the Shōgun in Edo, taking care to bring with them valuable gifts of new Western products. And during their stay in Edo the Dutch team would be discreetly visited by senior Japanese keen to learn everything they could during these regular but brief periods of contact.

So as the “closed country” of the Shōgunate entered on its third century there was a growing but carefully concealed opinion that while it had brought peace it had not brought progress. And then on 8 July 1853 Commodore Matthew Perry of the United States Navy sailed his flotilla of four vessels, known to Japanese history as the Black Ships, into Edo Bay, under instructions from President Millard Fillmore to open Japanese ports to American trade – using force if necessary.

It wasn’t as simple as that. Negotiating trade deals never is, especially when one of the parties doesn’t really want a deal and the other doesn’t really know what it wants. But after five years, in 1858, a Japan-US Treaty of Amity and Commerce was signed. It gave the Americans much less than they had hoped for but granted them access to a very limited number of ports and the right of American traders to reside there, their affairs regulated by a US Consul outside Japanese law. This was the first of the so-called “unequal treaties”, which the Japanese said were concluded under duress, and which they later wanted to replace. Other Western countries demanded their share of this forced opening-up of Japan. The Dutch were already there, and were soon joined in their demands by Britain, Prussia and – at the northern end of the country – Russia. This led to an “unequal treaty” with Britain too and in 1858 Rutherford Alcock became the head of the new British Mission in Edo.

By this time the conflict between those for and against tolerating the presence of foreigners was tearing the country apart. Foreigners were often treated with hostility, and in 1861 Alcock’s Mission was stormed by a group of samurai in an unsuccessful attempt to kill him and his staff. It was then housed in a temple building called the Tōzenji: the present owners are glad to receive visitors from the British Embassy and will display the sword-cuts in the overhead beams inflicted by the attackers. In 1863 came the Richardson Incident. Charles Richardson, two friends and the wife of one of them were exploring outside Edo when they met the retinue of daimyō Shimazu of Satsuma accompanying the daimyō’s father on his way home from the capital. Anyone finding such a procession bearing down on them was well advised to get off the road respectfully, but Richardson’s party were too ignorant, too arrogant, or both to do this and the daimyō’s samurai avenged the insult by killing him. The British Government demanded apologies and compensation, and when negotiations came to nothing mounted a punitive naval operation against Kagoshima, the capital of the Satsuma domain. The Navy didn’t have it all their own way: the Satsuma shore-battery did them a lot of damage, but with their antiquated artillery the fight was an unequal one. The daimyō of Satsuma was a realistic man and when the Richardson Incident was finally settled by the payment of compensation he approached the British Government with the request, now that they were friends again, to buy the latest naval vessels similar to those that had attacked his capital. On the basis of his guiding principle “If we take the initiative, we can dominate; if we do not, we will be dominated” he formed in 1866 an alliance with the daimyō of Chōshū on the western tip of Honshū across the strait, whose domain had also come under Western naval attack.

In theory the Shōgunate “closed country” policy was still in force, and the Tokugawa retreated from it only step-by-step and reluctantly. The daimyō of the domain of Hikone, Naosuke Ii, a determined opponent of opening Japan further to foreigners and their demands, became the Shōgun’s chief minister in 1858 but two years later he was assassinated at one of the gates of the Shōgun’s Castle. In theory the Tokugawa held their power only at the gift of the Emperor, and their policy was, equally theoretically, approved by him. It is easy to forget among all these conflicts that there was an Emperor, ruling from his palace in Kyōto. Many Westerners were unaware of the Emperor’s existence, believing Japan to be ruled by the Shōgun, or Taikun the title they were instructed to use. But he did exist, unseen but regarded with great reverence by the Japanese as a kind of High Priest preserving the safety of the country through sacred rituals in communion with his ancestors the ancient Gods of Japan. Whether the Emperors are descended from the Sun Goddess Amaterasu is an open question, but they are supposed to be in direct line from Emperor Jimmu who established himself in 660 BC. The present Emperor, who was installed last November, is the 126th. It is rather as if Italy today were still ruled by descendants of Romulus and Remus.

The belief that the Tokugawa administration, especially after their loss of Naosuke Ii, was weakly giving in to foreign demands against the wishes of the Emperor gained traction under the slogan Sonnō Jōi, “Revere the Emperor and Expel the Barbarians”. The great lords of the south-west could accept the first half of this programme as a means of removing the weak Shōgunate government, but saw the second part as neither possible nor desirable. Ways had to be found to take on the foreigners at their own game. It was here that Britain became crucially involved in the future course of Japan.

The staff of the small British Legation in Edo headed by Rutherford Alcock included two young men, Ernest Satow and Bertram Mitford, later Lord Redesdale and great-uncle of the Mitford girls. Satow was a fluent Japanese speaker and had many contacts among the young modernisers. One of his closest friends was a young man from the domain of Chōshū called Hirobumi Itō. He and others had been inspired by a young teacher in the town of Hagi called Shōin Yoshida and his belief in a new Japan drawing on foreign knowledge and support while remaining independent of foreign domination. In 1859 Naosuke Ii, whom I mentioned earlier, had Yoshida executed for his activities, but his influence remained strong – as indeed it does today. In 1863 five young men from Chōshū, led by Ernest Satow’s friend Itō, secretly approached him for help in leaving Japan to study in the West. Satow smuggled them to Hong Kong on the first stage of their journey; a ship of Jardine Matheson then took them on to Britain, and Satow arranged for them to study, as he had done, at University College London.

It is hardly possible to exaggerate the importance of these young men to the future of Japan – and indeed to relations between Japan and Britain for the next fifty or sixty years. Hirobumi Itō established the principles of Cabinet government and was Prime Minister for many years. Kinsuke Endō converted the currency from a muddle of different values, often denominated in quantities of rice, to modern money and set up a banking system. Kaoru Inoue is the father of Japanese diplomacy. Yūzō Yamao, after leaving UCL, worked as an apprentice engineer in a Glasgow shipyard and studied technology at Anderson’s College. And Masaru Inoue created the Japanese railway system. Japanese railways suggest to us the modern “bullet train” lines linking the main cities, but those aside Japan has an elaborate and complex network, probably the largest in the world relative to its size and one of the most efficient. The latest figures I could find show that the average punctuality on Japanese trains is within 40 seconds.

But before they, and others like them, could achieve these things they had to get into power. They returned to a Japan still in conflict about its future. Then in 1867 Emperor Kōmei died and was succeeded on 3 February by his 15-year-old son as the Emperor Meiji. The new Emperor was committed to opening up and modernising his country. Those who had fought against this policy had nowhere to turn: having campaigned under the slogan “Respect the Emperor” they could hardly complain when the Emperor himself announced a policy which was the exact opposite of “Expel the Barbarians”. There was a last stand by some of the diehards, including even an attempt to establish a breakaway republic in the northern island of Hokkaidō, but Meiji moved his capital from Kyōto to Edo, now renamed Tōkyō or Eastern Capital, and took up residence in the Shōgun’s castle. On 3 January 1868 – 11 months after his accession – he formally assumed power with the following announcement:

“The Emperor of Japan announces to the sovereigns of all foreign countries and their subjects that permission has been granted to the Shōgun to return the governing powers in accordance with his own request. We shall henceforward exercise supreme authority in all the internal and external affairs of the country. It is desirable that the representatives of the treaty powers recognise this announcement.”

On 22 May 1868 Sir Harry Parkes, who had succeeded Rutherford Alcock as head of the British Legation, presented his credentials to the Emperor Meiji, making Britain the first Western power to recognise the new régime.

The daimyō of Satsuma and Chōshū and their supporters – not least the five young men from UCL – were now in charge of the modernisation programme. But they couldn’t do it all on their own. Meiji announced: “Knowledge shall be sought all over the world and thereby the foundation of Imperial rule shall be strengthened.” A team of fifty Japanese officials were at once dispatched, some to Europe and others to the United States, to study the administration of Western countries and choose the best models for Japan to follow. A banking system and Navy were established on the British pattern. The model for the Army was that of the new German Empire. The French educational system was seen as the best choice partly because of its standardised curriculum. The medical profession was reconstructed on German lines and medical students were required to learn German so as to keep up with the latest developments. Industrial combines were to be set up as in the United States: government would invest in new industries and once they got going hand them over to business families some with names still well known today such as Mitsubishi and Mitsui: they became what were called zaibatsu on the model of the Trusts which were a feature of the United States economy. Most of these recommendations were accepted and rapidly put into effect. An exception was the question of a model for representational government. The future Prime Minister Hirobumi Itō was at the centre of this argument, and it was not until 1889 that the Meiji Constitution was introduced on the German model, combining a Parliamentary system with principles of respect for the Emperor in the interest of maintaining unity.

After these exploratory missions to the West had reported, and decisions been taken, large numbers of foreign experts and advisers were recruited, many of them from Britain. By the end of the Meiji period over 3,000 such people had been employed in Japan, working in newly established Ministries and Universities or as freelance entrepreneurs. Things began to move fast. The first telegraph line between Tokyo and Yokohama was set up in 1869, and by 1874 there was a national network covering the whole country with an undersea connection to Shanghai. By 1871 a modern postal service had been set up on the British “penny post” model, and in 1877 Japan joined the Universal Postal Union which had been set up two years before. I have already mentioned the railway network. The Tokyo to Yokohama line opened in 1872 with British assistance in finance and rolling-stock. A British engineer called Edmund Morel was appointed chief civil engineer to the Government and you can still sometimes see little Tudor turrets on tunnel entrances as on Brunel’s Paddington to Bristol line. The first steam locomotive imported from the UK, built in Glasgow, is now in a museum. The original Tokyo Station, which houses the platforms for the national network – new platforms for the “bullet trains” were added later – was built by a Japanese architect who had studied at the Imperial College of Engineering under one of the many British imported experts, the architect Josiah Conder. I remember once stopping for a moment on my way through and noticing that you could still make out, under generations of paint, raised lettering on the girder holding up the arch showing that it had been made in Sheffield. The network covered the whole country by the end of the century. The northernmost station in Japan is Wakkanai at the end of Hokkaidō: the original track is preserved there as a curiosity with the buffers placed by Japanese and British engineers as if to say “this is where Japan ends”.

Sometimes decisions were made in rather a hurry. Electrification of Tokyo and the north-east of Japan was carried out by British engineers, while the Americans got the job of electrifying the south-west half. As a result Japan had European-style 50 cycles in the north-east and American-style 60 cycles in the south-west – and I think still does. A silk mill was established with French technology and machinery, while the British built the Osaka cotton spinning mill: it is now an industrial heritage site.

I have time to mention just a very few of the British experts and managers who were recruited to help create the new Japan. There was Henry Dyer, Principal of the Imperial College of Engineering; Richard Henry Bruton who built lighthouses; the Scottish engineer Colin Alexander McVean who became Surveyor in Chief to the Emperor; the seismologist Sir James Alfred Ewing; Thomas Kinder who helped Kinsuke Endō, one of the UCL students, establish the Imperial Mint; and John Milne for 20 years Professor of Mining and Geology at the Imperial University and an amateur anthropologist.

Another imported British expert was Josiah Conder the architect whom I have already mentioned; his most famous building was given the exotic name  “Deer Cry Pavilion” or Rokumeikan and became a centre for gatherings of the westernised High Society of Meiji Japan. It acquired an – agreeably shocking but probably unjustified – reputation among those not high enough to be invited as a place of licentious behaviour and was demolished in the 1930s when the tide turned against excessive westernisation. Another famous adviser was Thomas Glover who helped establish the shipbuilding industry and lived in a splendid house overlooking Nagasaki which became the inspiration for the setting of Puccini’s opera Madame Butterfly.

Many, like Glover, did live comfortably and were well rewarded. Too well, some Japanese thought; but research suggests at no better than the going rate for senior officials and experts in Hong Kong, for example. There was no doubt some resentment but the main reaction was that Japan needed to get maximum value from these expensive people, learn everything they had to teach and look forward to becoming self-sufficient. And many foreigners responded warmly to the Japanese desire to learn.  “Boys, be ambitious!” an American Professor of Chemistry and Agriculture used to say to his students: it became a sort of national motto and is inscribed on statues of him in Sapporo.

Some foreigners who came to Japan did so in a humbler capacity out of personal interest. Lafcadio Hearn, for example, born in the Ionian Islands, then a British Protectorate, the son of an Irish Army doctor and his Greek wife, found his way to Japan and had jobs as an English teacher before finally becoming Professor at Waseda University. His descriptions of Japan and his collections of Japanese folk-tales and ghost stories are still admired. Hearn was one of those Westerners – and I have known a few – who come to love Japan so much that they cannot trust the Japanese to look after it properly, and resist westernisation. Basil Hall Chamberlain went to Japan in the more usual way, employed as Professor at the Imperial Naval Academy, but his deep knowledge of Japanese literature and language, including the indigenous languages of the Ainu in Hokkaidō and the Ryūkyūans in Okinawa, led to an appointment as Professor of Japanese at the Imperial University: he was a celebrated translator of Japanese poetry.

Not all those who contributed to the modernisation programme were so intellectual. Walter Weston of the Alpine Club introduced mountain-climbing into Japan, and gave the main range of Honshū island the name Japan Alps – which is what they are still called, though with a Japanese pronunciation, Japan Arupusu. He helped to found the Japan Alpine Club, whose members proudly claim to be the only such Club in the world permitted to wear the same tie as the original Alpine Club in London. North of Tokyo is a beautiful mountain lake called Lake Chūzenji where the British Embassy once had a summer residence, originally acquired by Ernest Satow in the early days. The lake and the streams that feed it are full of trout, and one of the pleasures of spending time there was to sit in the evening on the landing-stage below the Embassy House, gin-and-tonic in hand, and watch the baby trout jumping out of the water while herons skimmed over the surface of the lake scooping them up. Those that survived were later eaten in the many restaurants round the lake. But the trout didn’t get there by chance. A young British diplomat and Japanese specialist called Harold Parlett thought the streams feeding the lake would be excellent trout-streams – if only there were trout. So being an enterprising man he arranged with Thomas Glover of Nagasaki to import trout eggs. In the 1930s the Fly-Fishing Association of Japan put up a monument at the base of one of the waterfalls thanking Parlett for that, and it is still there.

While all this foreign knowledge and expertise was being imported, work was also going on to restructure the country internally. The traditional daimyō rulers “returned their domains to the Emperor” and the country was rearranged under a central government in 47 prefectures – the word tells us that the model was Napoleon’s restructuring of France. The new education system concentrated on reading, writing and mathematics as well as what we would now call civics. As industrialisation increased there was therefore a growing pool of workers with basic education to draw on. The centralised system made it possible to standardise the language, reduce local dialects and accents, and thus increase mobility.

One of the biggest social reforms was the abolition of the old class structure. The stipends, traditionally calculated in rice, owed to samurai were converted to Government bonds and then abolished. The dispossessed samurai became a new body of bureaucrats, military officers, teachers and administrators. Many resented their loss of status. Their right to wear swords in public was abolished, and the introduction of universal male conscription meant that ordinary Japanese had experience of bearing arms. Another blow to their prestige was the requirement for all Japanese to take surnames, formerly a samurai privilege – ordinary people had not been seen as having families or ancestors that mattered. While some accepted the new dispensation and made the best of it, others developed a cult of the traditional, and violent, military virtues and the samurai code of honour. This was storing up trouble for the future. The later aggressive and brutal behaviour of the Japanese Army drew directly on this alleged samurai spirit; and in its most distorted form it inspires the violent behaviour of the modern yakuza criminal families. (Anyone been watching Giri Haji?) But both those developments are, fortunately, outside the period I am describing.

I mentioned that one of Japan’s objectives in turning itself into a modern country was to renegotiate what were called the “unequal treaties” signed with Western countries in the final years of the Shōgunate. In 1902 the Anglo-Japanese Alliance was concluded. Other Western countries could not decide whether this British action was foolish, sinister or a mixture of both. But it was welcomed in Japan as the first international agreement in which Japan was treated as an equal. It was also seen – though this may not have been what Britain intended – as recognition of Japan’s colonial ambitions in Korea and China.

Now I need to go back a bit. Japan did not only send teams of officials to the West to examine administrative and political systems. Young men were also sent as students. In 1871 twelve cadets in the newly established Japanese Navy were sent to study in Britain on attachment to the Royal Navy. One was Heihachirō Tōgō, who came from a samurai family in the southernmost domain of Satsuma. He already knew about the Royal Navy because as a boy of fifteen he had helped to man the shore battery in Kagoshima which had resisted the British bombardment of the town after the Richardson incident. Altogether Tōgō spent seven years with the Royal Navy. The British cadets, with the casual racism of their class, called him “Johnny Chinaman,” but he surprised them by passing second in his year. After that he joined the training ship HMS Hampshire for a round-the-world journey, and then went on to Cambridge where he studied mathematics, and to the Royal Naval College Greenwich. During his study of naval tactics he conceived a personal devotion to the memory of Horatio Nelson. Nelson is in fact a very Japanese kind of hero: the idea of a man who thinks of a new way of doing something, succeeds brilliantly but dies in the attempt is very close to the Japanese mentality.

Tōgō rose quickly through the Japanese Navy and in 1903 was appointed Admiral and Commander-in-Chief. When Emperor Meiji questioned the choice, the Minister for the Navy gave the Napoleonic reply, “Because he is lucky.”

The following year war broke out between Japan and Russia. Both wanted control over the eastern area of China known as Manchuria. Russia had penetrated into the region and established a massive fortress at Port Arthur to the south. When the Japanese under General Maresuke Nogi and Admiral Heihachirō Tōgō attacked Port Arthur I doubt if a single Russian doubted for a moment that they would soon squash this upstart little Asian country no one had heard of fifty years before. But the Japanese Army under Nogi forced the Russian commander of Port Arthur to surrender, and the Navy under Tōgō destroyed the Russian fleet in the harbour. After the Russian surrender the Japanese raised six of the seven sunken Russian ships – two battleships and four cruisers – repaired them and recommissioned them into their own Navy.

When news of the siege of Port Arthur reached St Petersburg, reinforcements were sent from the Russian fleet in the Baltic. Under the Anglo-Japanese Alliance Britain closed the Suez Canal, obliging the Russian Admiral Rozhdestvensky to take the long route round Africa, a journey of about 15,000 nautical miles. On the way the news came of the surrender of Port Arthur and he decided to alter course for Vladivostok. When they reached the Straits of Tsushima between Japan and Korea they found Tōgō’s Navy waiting for them, and on 27-28 May 1905 the Russians were defeated decisively in the greatest and most significant naval battle since the victory of Tōgō’s hero Nelson at Trafalgar just one hundred years before.

Western countries had not given much for Japan’s chances in the Russo-Japanese War. But in Britain Japanese successes were greeted with admiration. That a modernising country, trying to copy the best of the West, had dealt such a blow to the antiquated and despotic Empire of the Tsars was seen as matter for celebration. Even before the war was over, a British newspaper publisher began issuing a magnificent three-volume part-work entitled Japan’s Fight for Freedom: a valuable quarry for contemporary reports and illustrations, but perhaps a little lacking in objectivity. It would have been better perhaps to consider the implications for Russia, and the efforts of those who were working for gradual reform and modernisation of its political system. The disaster led to mutinies in other parts of the Russian Navy, including on the Potemkin in harbour in Odessa, an event made famous by Sergei Eisenstein’s film, and the blow to national morale was one cause of the Revolution of October 1905. The Tsar and his Ministers survived that: twelve years later they were not so lucky. A small Asian country had defeated an enormous European (or partly European) one. Only with hindsight was that seen as a portent.

However, Emperor Meiji died on 30 July 1912, aged 59, so I am now outside the period of this lecture. I will just mention that the Anglo-Japanese Alliance remained in force and under it Japan took part in the First World War and supported the Royal Navy in the Mediterranean. 72 Japanese sailors died helping to defend Malta. In 1919 a Japanese contingent marched through London in the Victory Parade. The Alliance remained an important element in Japan’s view of itself in the world, and when in 1921 Britain terminated it under American pressure the result was a serious blow to the internationalist party among policymakers.

I’d like to finish with a personal memory. When I was Minister or the Ambassador’s deputy in Tokyo, my Ambassador, though a fine Chinese specialist, was not a Japanese speaker. This meant that, a bit like my distinguished predecessor Sir Ernest Satow, I was often sent to do interesting things where fluency in the language was necessary. One of them was representing Britain at a ceremony in Nagano Prefecture where a monument was to be unveiled in honour of Walter Weston who, you will remember, helped establish the Japan Alpine Club. The day began with my wife and me seated on a bamboo raft being poled down the river to the monument site by four brawny young men in loincloths.

Having arrived safe and not too damp, we were greeted by a line of notables – the Mayor, the Prefectural Governor, the Rector of the local University and so on. But I could see one elderly man who was not part of the line but was clearly being treated with respect. You soon learn in Japan that such a man is often more interesting and influential than the people officially in charge. So I introduced myself.

“One of the young men who poled you down the river,” he said, “was my grandson.” I expressed suitable appreciation. “In 1906 your Prince Arthur came here on a visit.” (Prince Arthur of Connaught was a brother of King Edward VII who sent him on a mission to invest Emperor Meiji with the Order of the Garter: he then spent a month or so travelling all over the country.) “And when Prince Arthur came, my father was one of the young men who poled him down the river on a raft. Thank you very much for coming.”

And thank you all for listening to me.


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