Review: A Diplomat in Japan by Ernest Mason Satow

The book A Diplomat in Japan, by Ernest Mason Satow describes Satow’s work and life from his arrival in Japan in 1861 to his first home leave in 1869. Satow maintained a diary throughout his working life, and this book is essentially a reworking of the diaries of that period into a more abstract chronological description of the events at the time he was involved in.

The book has one of those enormous 19th-century subtitles that explains everything:

The inner history of the years in the evolution of Japan when the ports were opened and the monarchy restored, recorded by a diplomatist who took an active part in the events of the time, with an account of his personal experiences during that period

which is a pretty accurate summary of the book, although the word “evolution” is a vast understatement: the period is one of the largest upsets in Japanese history. However, before we discuss these events in more detail, it is necessary to explain why “the ports were opened”, and why they had been closed in the first place.

In the early 17th century a new ruling family, the Tokugawa, emerged from the civil wars that had been raging in  Japan. They brought more than 260 years of peace, but as part of their consolidation of power they eliminated virtually all foreign influence from Japan. They had some justification: the Portuguese, and in particular Jesuit priests such as Francis Xavier, had been meddling ruthlessly in Japanese politics, and had gained enough power to be a potential threat to Tokugawa rule. The response was drastic and ruthless: Foreigners were forbidden to live in the country, Japanese were forbidden to leave the country, Christianity was forbidden, and Christians that did not take the opportunity to renounce Christianity (if they were Japanese) or leave the country (if they were foreigners) were executed en masse. Japan isolated itself from the world almost completely: only the Dutch and the English had small trading posts in Nagasaki in the south of Japan, and these trading posts were tightly controlled. When the English abandoned their trading post, the Dutch trading post became the single channel through which Western knowledge reached Japan, and knowledge of Japan reached the west. (There was also trade with China, Korea, and the Ainu, but the arrangements for that are beyond the scope of this review.)

Only US Commodore Perry’s expedition to Japan, consisting of two visits in 1853 and 1854, ended to this isolation. Although on the surface Perry’s visits were friendly, they were a textbook example of gunboat diplomacy. The fire power that Perry brought to Japan and the recent Opium war that the western powers had waged against China were very clear signals that there was a very unpleasant “or else” to the trade agreement that Perry offered to Japan. Consequently, in 1854 Japan signed an unfavorable trade agreement with the USA, quickly followed by nearly identical agreements with Great Brittain, France, Russia, several German states, and the Netherlands. These agreements established that the Japanese government allowed foreigners to establish houses and trading posts in a number of ports in Japan, where Yokohama, near Tokyo, was the first and foremost one. Hakodaté on Hokaido island and Nagasaki (the location of the centuries-old Dutch trading post) were also in the original agreement. Others were to be negotiated later. This is the “opening of the ports” mentioned in the subtitle of the book. From Japan’s point of view, perhaps the worst part of the agreements was that they also imposed a system of extraterritoriality which placed foreign residents under the jurisdiction of their respective nations’ consular courts, exempt from Japanese law.

Although the agreements brought some positive developments, in particular the opportunity to import Western goods and knowledge into Japan, the Japanese consensus was that they were deeply humiliating. The only disagreement was on the proper response: (a) kicking out these uppety barbarians immediately, or (b) first learn as much as possible from these uppety barbarians, buy enough weapons from them, and then kick them out. Option (a) was obviously impractical due to the overwhelming firepower of the uppety barbarians, but especially in the first two decades after the agreements there were still quite a number of hot-headed individuals, and even some local rulers, that sought to implement option (a) on their own, with predictably miserable results. The resentments about the agreements also caused a lot of political turbulence, resulting in a revolutionary change in the Japanese power structure. Arguably Japan eventually managed to some extent option (b) in the early 20th century by winning a war against Russia and signing more favorable trade agreements, but at that time the country had transformed itself into a Western-style colonizing power, and the uppety barbarians would never be kicked out completely.

When Ernest Mason Satow in 1861 started his career in the United Kingdom’s diplomatic service, he was 18 years old. He had read about Commodore Perry’s visit to Japan, and it made him want to visit the country himself. His opportunity came when the British Foreign service advertized for student interpreters to learn Chinese or Japanese; Satow chose Japanese, and started his career as a student interpreter and was first stationed in China for a few months, and then in Yokohama in Japan.

His language education was improvised to say the least. Although he was first taught some Chinese, which he later considered useful but hardly essential, most of his education was through Japanese tutors who had trouble speaking English, and the rest he had to learn with a great deal of self-study.The reality was that at the time there were no interpreters between English and Japanese, let alone teachers for such interpreters. Due to the isolation policy, very few Japanese spoke any foreign language at all, and if they did it was Chinese (there was indirect trade with China, and Chinese culture has always had a strong influence on Japan), or Dutch (Japanese scholars of Western knowledge knew at least to read Dutch). Consequently Commodore Perry and the first Westerners after him in Japan had to make do with double interpretation, with Chinese or Dutch as intermediate language.

Ernest Satow was one of the people to change that. In the book we see him starting as a student translator working hard to make any sense of written and spoken Japanese, developing into an interpreter that could produce a decent translation of a Japanese state document:

It was a proud night for me when I displayed my knowledge of written Japanese in the presence of the French minister, whose interpreter, M. Mermet, even could not read a document without the assistance of his teacher.

to someone who speaks and even writes fluent Japanese:

I was beginning to become known among the Japanese as a foreigner who could speak their language correctly, and my circle of acquaintance rapidly extended

He developed sufficient skills to understand and interpret the subtle nuances of Japanese texts, to recognize the different regional dialects of spoken Japanese, he went Japanese book hunting, and he maintained a network of Japanese friends and relations. Eventually he bought a house and established a household outside the embassy buildings with servants and a gardener. (What the book doesn’t mention, because such a relation was illegal, was that the household also contained his Japanese (common-law) wife.)

Satow also amazed Westeners and Japanese by successfully digesting and even appreciating Japanese food:

The people of the inn were astonished to find that we could eat rice, having been taught to believe that the food of Europeans consisted exclusively of beef and pork.

In his own house

[the] food was entirely in the Japanese style, sent in from the well-known house called Mansei, but I continued to drink English beer.

He also learned to digest lots and lots of saké. Diplomacy in Japan involved drinking saké, and high-level diplomacy involved drinking a lot of saké. One typical event from many:

Musical instruments were brought in, and a great deal of saké was drunk, greatly to the increase of friendliness and conviviality, but not to the advantage of the interchange of political views.

Of course the increased friendliness and conviviality would make the interchange of political views later much easier.

Because of the revolution, Satow’s stay in Japan was action-packed. When he arrived the Tokugawa government was in power, and was grudgingly implementing  the trade agreements, using delaying tactics as much as it could. Foreigners were restricted to tighly controlled areas and activities, but pushing the boundaries came natural to the Westerners, including Satow:

There was in those days a fixed price for the foreigner wherever he went, arbitrarily determined without reference to the native tariff. At the theatre a foreigner had to pay an ichibu for admittance, and was then thrust into the “deaf-box,” as the gallery seats are called, which are so far from the stage that the actors’ speeches are quite indistinguishable. The best place for both seeing and hearing is the doma, on the area of the theatre, close in front of the stage. On one occasion I walked into the theatre, and took my place in one of the divisions of the doma, offering to pay the regular price. No, they would not take it. I must pay my ichibu and go to the foreigner’s box. I held out, insisting on my right as one of the public. Did I not squat on the floor with my boots off, just like themselves? Well then, if I would not come out of that, the curtain would not rise. I rejoined that they might please themselves about that. In order to annoy a single foreigner, they would deprive the rest of the spectators of the pleasure they had paid to enjoy. So I obstinately kept my place, and in the end the manager gave way. The “house” was amused at the foreigner speaking their language and getting the best of the argument, and for the rest of my time in Yokohama I had no more difficulty in obtaining accommodation in any part of the theatre that I preferred.

Governmental delaying tactics were merely annoying, but there were also western traders and soldiers murdered by hot-headed individuals, typically samurai. These murders led to sharp diplomatic or even military retaliation from the Western powers, and in fact they gave them some leverage over the Japanese government.

At a larger scale, when the Tokugawa shogunate lost its grip on the local rulers, some of them started to resist the Western powers. This led to a few very one-sided military incidents: no Japanese domain, even if it had some Western arms, was able to resist Western gun boats, especially because the Western powers would cooperate and send a multi-national fleet. Again, in the long term these incidents were favorable to the Western powers, because the inevitable indemnities were chosen to further the goals of the Western powers. Satow participated in these military operations as interpreter and diplomat.

In domains that were defeated by the Westerners new people came to power, often resulting in a more pro-western government. At one point Satow mused that

[…] it is not a little remarkable that neither the Satsuma nor the Chôshiû men ever seemed to cherish any resentment against us for what we had done, and during the years of disturbance and revolution that followed they were always our most intimate allies.

At the time of these incidents Satow was already skilled enough to forge diplomatic and personal bonds with the new people in power, and consequently he would meet and befriend people early in their career that would later become very important figures in Japanese politics.

One of the things that the Western powers were grappling with was the complications of the power structure in Japan. Since prehistoric times the nominal head of state in Japan has been the Emperor. However, from early on real power was in the hands of someone else, most of the time a Shogun (a military position somewhat like the Commander-in-Chief). From the early 17th century the shogunate was in the hands of the Tokugawa family. When Commodore Perry signed his agreements from the American side, they were signed by a representative of the Shogun from the Japanese side. Perry believed that he had made an agreement with the Emperor, but in reality the Shogun did not consult with the Emperor, even for such important matters. This distinction became more and more relevant because the agreements caused a great deal of resentment that undermined the power of the Tokugawa shogunate, and that increased the demands to restore power to the Emperor. (To confuse things even more, the book mostly uses the word Tycoon rather than Shogun, and Mikado rather than Emperor. Both of these terms are nowadays considered obsolete.)

The rebellion against Tokugawa rule quickly developed into a civil war. France explicitly chose the side of the Tokugawa shogunate. Ostensibly the other Western powers avoided taking sides, but since they now insisted that the trade agreements should explicitly be ratified by the Emperor they were increasing his political influence, so the claim was somewhat hollow. Another stated goal of Western diplomacy was to mediate in the civil war to limit the bloodshed as much as possible. Apart from obvious humanitarian concerns, this was clearly in their own best interest because a warring Japan would not be a stable trading partner.

During one of the most turbulent periods of this Japanese civil war, Satow and the artist Charles Wirgman saw opportunity to travel overland from ‘Ozaka to Yedo’ (Osaka to Tokyo) rather than by gunboat, as was the usual way of transport. It was not difficult to come up with an excuse:

Japan being a country where a peculiar political system had taken its birth from centuries of civil war, the more we saw of its interior districts, the more likely were we to arrive at a correct understanding of the problem which at that moment was being attacked by the rival parties.

But Satow was honest enough to admit the real reason:

I do not pretend that any considerations such as these determined my application to the chief for permission to return to headquarters by land. Insatiable curiosity as to everything Japanese, a certain love of adventure, and dislike of life on board of a man-of-war were the real motives, the last perhaps as strong as any, and probably many persons would agree with me in preferring to spend a day in walking from Calais to Dover, if it were practicable, to taking their chance of rough weather in a steamer, even though it might not last for more than an hour and ten minutes.

The trip was not entirely without precedent, because even during the centuries of isolation the Dutch at Deshima were required to visit the Shogun by traveling overland. Moreover,

[…] in the new [Perry] treaties a provision had been inserted giving to the diplomatic representatives of foreign powers the right of travelling throughout the country, and Sir Rutherford Alcock had availed himself of this privilege a few years earlier, as he has recounted in his “Court and Capital of the Tycoon.”

Nevertheless, such trips were extremely rare at the time. In preparation of the trip, Satow and Wigman first of all decided to travel light:

Wirgman and I were by this time so accustomed to living on Japanese food that we resolved not to burden ourselves with stores of any kind, knives or forks, finger glasses or table napkins.

They would travel by kago, in other words: they would be carried in a box, and although the box was fitted out for their comfort with cushions, blankets, and windows that could be opened against the heat or closed against the rain, travel in a box carried by men is fundamentally uncomfortable:

Our bearers quickened their pace, not indeed to our satisfaction, for the kago, which is uncomfortable at all times, becomes almost uninhabitable when the men get out of a walk.

Consequently, the preferred to walk, but:

[…] etiquette demanded that we should always ride in entering and quitting a town, the vulgar practice of proceeding on foot being allowable only in the more countryfied portions of the highroad.

The trip gave them all the adventure they could wish for. By orders of the national government, they were treated as high officials with all the associated perks, so they not only got to see inland Japan from the road, but they also visited tea growers, schools, and craftsmen, had shopping opportunities, and were entertained in high-class inns along the the way. Oh, and they narrowly escaped an assassination attempt.

The trouble started because a rei-hei-shi (a group of people on a pilgrimage on behalf of the Emperor) was in the same area as they were. Satow, Wigman, and their guards carefully manoeuvred to avoid meeting the rei-hei-shi because it was one of the few types of travelers that had higher ranking than they had, and if they met they would have to show respect, something that was against their principles. Moreover, the rei-hei-shi had a reputation of extorting money from people by declaring that they were not respectful enough no matter what. Apparently the rei-hei-shi were also aware of them and took offense, because one night a group of people from the rei-hei-shi armed with swords attacked the inn where they were sleeping. Their own guards were able to dispell the attackers without any casualties on either side, but the incident did not end well for the attackers: Satow demanded redress from the local authorities, and threatened to attack the rei-hei-shi if they did not hand over the attackers. After some delaying tactics the rei-hei-shi gave in: they wrote an apology and handed over a few of its men to the local authorities.

Ultimately, some months later, these men and three others implicated in the affair were brought to Yedo and put on their trial. Two were condemned to death, and four more to transportation to an island. Sir Harry wanted me to be present at the execution of these two men, but I persuaded him to send some one else instead. To look on at the execution of men who have tried to take one’s life would have borne an appearance of revengefulness, which one would not have liked. But I think that under the circumstances of those times the punishment was rightly inflicted.

The trip apparently was also valuable for the British government, because a few months later Satow and Wirgman were asked to make another overland trip, this time from Nanao to Osaka, an even less explored part of Japan. Again they were treated as high officials, but this time reception in some domains was frosty and rude since these domains wanted to keep their distance from the foreigners. However, their knowledge of Japanese etiquette helped:

At Takamiya, where we lunched, we found the dais room closed against us, but I took the innkeeper and his servants roundly to task, and made them open it. After this, they [their guards/handlers] recognized that we understood Japanese etiquette, and for their previous rudeness substituted perfect courtesy.

They also were caught up in a plot to steer them away from Kyoto, where the Emperor resided, because any direct contact between the foreigners and the Emperor’s court could have great political repercussions. Satow saw through the plot, but on the condition that the plotters admitted their intrigue in writing, he agreed to cooperate. He later learned that by agreeing to be diverted they had quite likely avoided another attempt on their lives.

The conflict between Tokugawa forces and rebels eventually escalated into a shooting war over control over Kyoto (and hence the Emperor). The Tokugawa Shogun resigned early in this war, ending more than two centuries of Tokugawa shogunate, but his desire to save some of his wealth and the unwillingness of some domains to accept the Emperor as the new ruler meant that the war nevertheless continued.

At the time the battle over Kyoto broke out, the Western powers, Satow included, were trying to get an interview with the Emperor, and were stationed near Kyoto. Since one of the reasons for the entire conflict was resentment against the Western powers and their agreements, it was perhaps unavoidable that the proximity of Western powers to the battle drew the ire, and gun fire, of the more hot-headed opponents. The Western powers reacted when shot at by shooting back and confiscating some ships of the various parties, and they made it very clear that any further attack on them would result in heavy retaliation. Satow was yet again in the perfect position to communicate with the various Japanese parties, and to report on the proceedings.

The battle over Kyoto resulted in a resounding defeat of the Tokugawa forces, and in effect at that moment power was restored to the Emperor: the Meiji restoration. Since the French had openly taken the side of the Shogun they lost a great deal of influence, whereas the other Western powers, especially the British, gained influence. Moreover, the new regime realised that the Western powers were not in the mood to accept Japan reneging on them, and promised to honour the trade agreements:

The Emperor of Japan announces to the sovereigns of all foreign countries and to their subjects that permission has been granted to the Shôgun Tokugawa Yoshinobu to return the governing power in accordance with his own request. We shall henceforward exercise supreme authority in all the internal and external affairs of the country. Consequently the title of Emperor must be substituted for that of Tycoon, in which the treaties have been made. Officers are being appointed by us to the conduct of foreign affairs. It is desirable that the representatives of the treaty powers recognize this announcement.

The book ends with Satow traveling to Brittain for his first home leave. However, this was not the end of his involvement with Japan. He would continue to work as a diplomat in Japan for most of his life, and grow into one of the leading Western authorities on Japanese language, culture, and travel. For example, when Isabella Bird visited Japan in 1878 (about 9 years after the events in this book), she consulted Satow before and after her exploration of Northern Japan.

Satow was throughout his career an influential agent of a colonizing power, and colonialism is nowadays not an acceptable way for a country to interact with the world. Remarkably, in this book there are very few passages that are objectionable in modern terms. Perhaps the most painful thing Satow wrote is

[…] the submissive character of the Japanese will make it easy for foreigners to govern them after the “samurai problem” was resolved

but in the book he immediately follows this with:

[…] looking back now in 1919, it seems perfectly ludicrous that such a notion should have been entertained, even as a joke, for a single moment, by anyone who understood the Japanese spirit.

Admittedly this was far in hindsight, when Japan had already grown into a colonizing power on par with the Western ones, but even in his youth he was normally wise enough not to underestimate the Japanese. Arguably he was an exception because he learned to appreciate and even love Japan. However, the overall approach of the Western powers to Japan was remarkably constrained. Yes, they forced their way in with gunboat diplomacy, and they were not questioning whether this was right; they even thought that they were doing Japan a favour by bringing Western civilization to them. However, from the beginning the goal was to trade, not outright power over Japan. No doubt one reason for this was that Japan would not be easy to subdue; in many other parts of the world the colonizers did not show such restraint. Still, the Western powers were quite willing to provide all the knowledge and equipment that Japan desired to buy, including weapons and military training. In general, Japanese domains had done far worse things between themselves than they had to endure from the Western powers.


The book is in the public domain; it can be downloaded from Project Gutenberg, and from There is also a modern reprint from Cambridge University Press.


The featured image of this review is from the illustrated Project Gutenberg edition of the book.



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