A Diplomat in Japan: A British view of the Meiji Restoration

Every country has at least one historical era that forms the basis of much of its books, film, and television. The United States has the Wild West, and Japan has the Meiji Restoration.

The Meiji Restoration has the makings of great drama. Sparked by Commodore Perry’s opening of Japan, there was dramatic conflict between the Southern Coalition demanding the expulsion of “the barbarians” from Japan, and the Tokugawa Shogunate trying to placate everybody. In that conflict were lies and intrigue; plots, conspiracies, and assassinations; masterless samurai and royalty; and crimes of passion and honor.

There was also a story-book hero: Saigo Takamori. While he helped overthrow the Shogunate and form a modern government, he then led a rebellion against that government when it threatened the samurai class. He came to symbolize a romanticized samurai culture, and the Tom Cruise movie “The Last Samurai” presented a fictionalized version of his story.

Most of the stories about the Meiji Restoration focus on the internal conflict within Japan. The foreigners were mainly treated like secondary characters whose function was comical relief. In woodblock prints, foreigners were represented by grotesque caricatures of ape-like creatures with large noses and red cheeks.

After decades of knowing the story from the Japanese point of view, it was interesting to read A Diplomat in Japan, a recollection of incidents from the viewpoint of the secretary of the British legation in Tokyo. This story is told many years later, in 1903, after Ernest Satow became Sir Ernest.

Sir Ernest based his account upon diaries and letters written at the time of the events described. He did not rely on his memory of what happened decades before. For that I commend him.

In one instance, he wrote:

“My diary contains no further entry until the middle of May, and letters I wrote to my parents narrating the incidents which befel us at Kiôto have not been preserved.”

He states the foreign community has been described by an English diplomat as “the scum of Europe,” but said:

 “No doubt there was a fair sprinkling of men who, suddenly relieved from the restraints which social opinion places upon their class at home, and exposed to the temptations of Eastern life, did not conduct themselves with the strict propriety of students at a theological college. That they were really worse than their co-equals elsewhere is unlikely.”

Describing Yokohama society:

“There were few ladies in the settlement. Japan was a long way from Europe, with no regular steam communication, and the lives of foreigners were supposed to be not very safe at the hands of the arm-bearing classes.”

The danger of the arm-bearing classes is shown in the killing of foreigners, like a merchant named Richardson who was riding with friend when they met with a train of a daimiô’s retainers, who bid them stand aside.

“They passed on at the edge of the road, until they came in sight of a palanquin, occupied by Shimadzu Saburô, father of the Prince of Satsuma. They were now ordered to turn back, and as they were wheeling their horses in obedience, were suddenly set upon by several armed men belonging to the train, who hacked at them with their sharp-edged heavy swords.”

After the Richardson murder, the British demanded satisfaction. The Shogunate cooperated, but the Satsuma clan did not, so British ships attacked the clan in Kagoshima and burnt much of the city.

“The Admiral in his report, which was published in the London ‘Gazette,’ took credit for the destruction of the town, and Mr. Bright very properly called attention to this unnecessary act of severity in the House of Commons; whereupon he wrote again, or Colonel Neale wrote, to explain that the conflagration was accidental. But that I cannot think was a correct representation of what took place, in face of the fact that the “Perseus” continued to fire rockets into the town after the engagement with the batteries was at an end, and it is also inconsistent with the air of satisfaction which marks the despatch reporting that £1,000,000 worth of property had been destroyed during the bombardment.”

The bombardment convinced the Satsuma clan of the superiority of Western weapons, and Sir Ernest eventually became friends with the leaders of the clan.

Later, a conflict with the Choushûu resulted in naval operations against their Shimonoseki batteries. The Choushûu clan also learned the superiority of Western weapons, and Sir Ernest eventually became friends with the leaders of that clan as well.

This led to the situation where Great Britain was friendly with the Southern Coalition while the French were friendly with the Tokugawa Shogunate. The book speaks much of this rivalry between Great Britain and France.

Subsequently the writer witnessed the execution of two murderers by decapitation, and says:

“It was a horrible sight to see the attendants holding the headless corpse down to the hole, and kneading it so as to make the blood flow more readily into the hole, and I left the spot in all haste, vowing that mere curiosity should never induce me to witness another execution.”

There were other incidents, including times when his life was in danger, partly by his own recklessness. He was a bold man, sometimes more reckless than prudent. He was also a good storyteller, but part of the story that he told (maybe unintentionally) was the ignoble role that the European forces played in Japanese society. The British weren’t there for noble reasons, but then neither were the French, Dutch, Americans, North-Germans and Italians. They were all there for the great adventure, and the thrill of the chase for wealth.

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