Book Review: "A Diplomat in Japan" by Sir Ernest Satow

When Edo Japan was forced to open its doors to the outside World in 1854, it set off a train of events that destabilized the feudal order and led to its replacement by a new centralized state bent on modernization. A privileged spectator throughout much of this process was Ernest Satow, an interpreter and secretary to the British Legation in Tokyo for 21 years.

His detailed account of those years – available in this recent Stone Bridge Press paperback edition – is essential reading for anybody interested in Japanese history, culture, and character.

What made Satow such a good observer were his formidable Japanese language skills as the "tongue–officer" (direct translation of his title from Japanese) of the British ambassador, Sir Harry Parkes. These allowed him to win verbal battles with surly samurai and to gauge the changing mood of the country. Along with his Japanese sounding name, his ability to communicate also endeared him to many Japanese, including the great samurai statesman Saigo Takamori, who is frequently mentioned.

The young Satow arrived in Japan in 1862, making every effort to improve his sketchy understanding of the language.
"I also took writing lessons from an old writing–master,” he mentions. “He was afflicted with a watery eye, and nothing but a firm resolve to learn would have enabled me to endure the drip from the diseased orbit, which now fell on the copy–book, now on the paper I was writing on..."
It is the offbeat and human touches like this that make what would otherwise be a dry account of diplomacy into a very readable work. Satow also enlivens his text with skillful literary touches, analogizing the Shogunate as an Egyptian mummy that “crumbled to ashes” as soon as it was introduced to the “fresh air of European thought.”

At the time of his arrival, the foreign community, based at Yokohama, was in constant danger from xenophobic elements, and suffered several unprovoked murders, including that of an English merchant called Richardson, who was cut down near Kawasaki for not getting out of the way of the lord of Satsuma. Such incidents revealed the weakness of a central government that was unable to control or punish powerful feudal lord. Ultimately, the British were forced to take matters into their own hands, resulting in the naval bombardment and destruction of the Satsuma city of Kagoshima, and, later, the destruction of the Choshu clan’s artillery batteries overlooking the straits of Shimonoseki.

These early examples of ‘shock and awe,’ rather than creating bitter enemies, won the British prestige and even a degree of affection from these formerly xenophobic clans and others, as revealed by Satow’s detailed account of the increasing warm hospitality – much of it involving alcohol – he and his superiors received on their diplomatic journeys across Japan.

The British went on to support these two clans in the subsequent war to overthrow the Edo Shogunate, mainly because they wanted a strong central authority that could deliver its treaty obligations and provide for the safety of the foreign community.

The great charm of this book is that it lacks specialization. Nowadays the tendency is for serious writers on Japan to focus on just one area – economics, politics, love hotels, otaku culture, etc. – in order to at least secure an academic readership for their works. Satow’s great strength is that he does not limit himself to one area.

Although writing about diplomacy, he does not lose himself in its dreary details. While retelling the great events of the day, he avoids writing a mere history. Exposing the culture, fashions, and societal structures of Japan, he nevertheless avoids turning his book into an anthropological tome. Instead, he includes all these elements and more in a lively and interrelated way, painting his picture of the country’s transformation from the widest possible palette.

June 15, 2007

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