BRITISH ENVOYS IN JAPAN, 1859-1972, edited and compiled by Hugh Cortazzi. London: Japan Society, 2004, 352 pp., £39.95 (cloth). Hugh Cortazzi, distinguished diplomat and scholar, is an extraordinary octogenarian, penning columns for this newspaper and brainstorming, prodding and tirelessly seeing to completion numerous projects related to Japan.

Here we have 26 chapters on the men who were in the front lines of Britain-Japan relations by some of Britain's leading Japan-hands. These are fascinating portraits of the ministers and ambassadors who carried out their briefs while trying to shape attitudes, perceptions and policies in Tokyo and London. A century down the road historians will doff their hat in appreciation of the man who brought the "Embassies of Asia" series into being. In this first excellent installment, there is much to be learned about Britain-Japan relations, the evolution of diplomacy and Japanese history.

Coming from a milieu where circumlocutions are standard fare, Cortazzi writes with refreshing candor. For example, "Despite his limitations [Lt. Col. Edward St. John] Neale . . . should not be dismissed as a weak and bone-headed ex-army officer." Adding, "He was something of a martinet (understandable in view of his military background), had a short fuse . . . [and] was probably not outstandingly intelligent."

Sir Rutherford Alcock, minister at Edo (1859-62), is taken to task for his vague and lengthy dispatches. We find out that "He also had strong ethical principles . . . this was to be a source of trouble in Japan." He disapproved of the Gankiro, a brothel operated in Yokohama for foreigners, and grew frustrated that all official communications were translated twice through Dutch, causing vexing delays and misunderstandings. He also famously rejected a curious Japanese offer of compensation for an attack and ransacking of the British legation, demanding, "justice and redress, not ducks and sugar."