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Bridge between Japan and Britain

by Hugh Cortazzi

Until World War II, Japanese language and culture were studied at few institutions outside Japan, and only a small number of scholars specialized in Japanese studies. Among the independent organizations devoted to promoting an understanding of Japan, its history and culture, two traced their origins to the late 19th century:

The Asiatic Society of Japan, founded shortly after the Meiji Restoration (1868). Famous scholars who added to the group’s “transactions” included Ernest Satow, W.G. Aston and Basil Hall Chamberlain. The Asiatic Society continues to contribute to Japanese studies through its lectures and annual transactions.

The Japan Society of London, established in 1891 following a meeting of the Japan section of the Congress of Orientalists in London under the chairmanship of professor de Rosny of Paris.

The first chairman of the Japan Society was Dr. William Anderson, the first instructor at the naval medical school in Tokyo. (He devoted all of his spare time and resources to collecting and studying Japanese art.)

The 1890s marked a high point in the influence of Japan on Western art. Japonisme was promoted by the founders of the Japan Society, who included the dealer and collector Siegfried Bing.

In its early years, the Japan Society devoted many lectures and pages of its “proceedings” to Japanese art. It also organized exhibitions of Japanese art and was closely involved with the large-scale Britain and Japan Exhibition at Shepherds Bush, London, in 1910. The Society tried to cover historical, cultural, political and economic aspects of Japan.

Since the end of World War II, Japanese studies abroad have developed significantly, and the number of books published about various aspects of Japan in foreign languages, especially English, has grown to such an extent that few scholars can absorb more than a small part of the output. Scholars have become increasingly specialized, and publications such as Japan Forum, the journal of the British Association of Japanese Studies, are mainly devoted to their specialized interests.

The Japan Society, which was revived after the war, has focused on helping to meet the needs of those with a more general interest in Japan. Its publications, lectures and other activities have made a significant contribution to British understanding of Japan. Its books, while aimed at a wider readership, have maintained a high standard of scholarship.

The Society also assists the Japan Foundation, which did not exist before the war and whose tasks include promoting Japanese culture abroad with limited funds.

In the first decades after the war the Society’s bulletins consisted mainly of an account of its activities and lectures together with a few book reviews. In 1985 the Society decided that its academic credentials had to be re-established and the standards of lectures and publications raised. The 1991 centennial of the founding of the Society was marked by the Japan Festival in Britain.

The most important of the Japan-related publications that the Society sponsored during the centennial was “Britain and Japan 1859-1991: Themes and Personalities” (Routledge, 1991), which was later translated into Japanese (Shibunkaku, 1998).

This book, which also contained a history of the Japan Society, was primarily devoted to biographical portraits of British and Japanese personalities who had contributed in various ways to Anglo-Japanese relations. It set the pattern for a series of five volumes titled “Britain and Japan: Biographical Portraits” (Vol. 1-4, Japan Library; Vol. 5, Global Oriental) and led to two other publications:

“Japan Experiences: Fifty Years, One Hundred Views, Post-War Japan Through British Eyes 1945-2000″ (Japan Library), which brings together the reminiscences of postwar Japan of British people in various occupations.

“British Envoys in Japan 1859-1972″ (Global Oriental, 2004), which contains biographical portraits of British diplomats in Japan at important posts.

In “Biographical Portraits,” some 200 personalities who have not been the subject of separate monographs are described. Included are essays on a number of related themes such as British plant collectors in Japan (a highlight of the Japan Society’s “A Garden Bequest — Plants from Japan” exhibition at Japan 2001 in Britain).

But as history is based on the lives and activities of individual people, the main emphasis throughout is on the contribution of individuals to the relationship between Britain and Japan.

With “Biographical Portraits,” we have tried to get a reasonable balance between British and Japanese personalities and between British and Japanese contributors. We ensured that contributions were based on research and were scholarly. All contributors produced their essays entirely voluntarily without recompense.

We have aimed to cover individuals in every walk of life. Some of the diplomats and politicians portrayed were key figures in the development of relations between the two countries. Politicians Lord Curzon and Ozaki Yukio, to mention only two, are portrayed in Vol. 5.

Members of the British Royal and Japanese Imperial families have been important in the development of Anglo-Japanese friendship and are the subject of portraits. Vol. 5 contains a portrait of Prince and Princess Chichibu as well as an account of the present Emperor’s visit to London for the coronation in 1953 when he was Crown Prince.

We have written not only about many of the literary figures, scholars and journalists who have contributed to cultural understanding but also about leading Japan Society personalities. Vol. 5, for example, includes portraits of British poets Ralph Hodgson and Robert Nichols, who taught in Japan between the wars; Japanese poet Nishiwaki Junzaburo; scholars like Richard Storry and Louis Allen; and British and Japanese journalists such as Frank Hawley and Hasegawa Nyozekan.

An important element in Anglo-Japanese relations has been the close contacts between the two navies. Vol. 5 includes five essays on naval matters; one is about Takaki Kanehiro, who studied surgery in Britain, became surgeon general to the Imperial Japanese Navy and pioneered a cure for beriberi.

We have not overlooked the role of British missionaries or that of sports (especially judo).

Business has been a major factor in the relationship, and we have included essays on some of the British companies that came to Japan in the Meiji Era and Japanese companies that were established in Britain in the late Victorian era. But there is much more work to be done on economic and commercial relations especially in the second half of the 20th century.

We have not produced portraits of every one of the important figures who have played significant parts in Anglo-Japanese relations over the past 150 years, but our volumes have made a real contribution to the record and will be a valuable source for scholars in the years to come.

If the Society is able to find the resources, a sixth volume may be produced with some interesting additional portraits. The Japan Society intends to continue its publications program so far as resources permit.