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.”

Sir Harry Parkes (1865-83) emerges as one of the more colorful characters. He survived numerous attempts on his life and demonstrated cool and courage in times of peril. He was known as a harsh taskmaster and Cortazzi confesses that he would not have wanted to serve under him, concluding that, “his irascibility must have made him insufferable but he was obviously an outstanding head of mission.”

Sir Ernest Satow (1895-1900), is generally recognized as the most qualified diplomat and capable scholar to have headed the British Mission to Japan. It is a sign of the times that he kept a Japanese mistress and fathered two children by her, but was unable to marry her. It was he who established the British summer retreat on Lake Chuzenji, a villa designed by Joseph Condor that is still used by the ambassador and fortunate staff.

Ian Nish contributes an excellent introduction to the section covering the critical period from alliance to estrangement in bilateral relations, 1900-1941. We learn that the staff in Tokyo “were often in the dark about the global considerations or political concerns, which were influencing policymaking in London.” In his view, “the Tokyo envoys rarely affected policy radically . . . and were often disregarded.” Telegrams tightened the noose around these envoys, ensuring they had increasingly less latitude from the dictates of Whitehall mandarins. Nonetheless, the fascinating portraits of these envoys reveal that some were much more than faceless factotums.

Anthony Best contributes a balanced assessment of the controversial tenure of Sir Robert Craigie (1937-41). In this excellent essay he defends Craigie against charges of appeasement, arguing that Britain’s weakness in Asia limited its ability to influence Japan. Craigie was perhaps overly optimistic about “moderates” in Japan and their ability to rein in the militarists. He concludes “it is possible to see his preferred policy not so much as one of abject appeasement but rather as a practical response to a complex and potentially explosive situation.” Best sympathetically points out that Craigie faced a mission impossible and, in the end, his conciliatory views were not in line with Britain’s global interests and overtaken by events.

After World War II, the Foreign Office adjusted with difficulty to playing second fiddle to the United States in Japan. Peter Lowe surmises that the negative tenor of British assessments “resulted from the marginalization of British influence.”

In addition, lingering bitterness regarding Japanese mistreatment of British prisoners of war cast a cloud over bilateral relations, at least in the initial years. Growing fears about trade competition and British opposition to Japan’s membership in GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) also cast a pall.

Roger Buckley pithily comments that Sir Esler Dening (1951-57) “was on a hiding to nothing in matters of trade.” The essays on Sir Oscar Morland and Sir John Pilcher (1967-72) stand out because they are written by contemporaries and include engaging anecdotes and insights that help the reader better appreciate the man and his circumstances.

Only those on the spot could relate to the Showa Emperor’s being “particularly pleased by the restoration of his banner as a Knight of the Garter.”

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