Japan in Their Own Words (JITOW)/日本からの意見

The 100th Anniversary of the visit of Crown Prince Hirohito to Europe Overlapping Sense of Nationhood of Japan and China
NISHIKAWA Megum / Journalist

July 27, 2021
This year marks the 100th anniversary of Emperor Showa’s visit to 6 European nations as Crown Prince. Just before the Crown Prince arrived in Britain, a book about Japan had been published: “A Diplomat in Japan”. The author was Earnest Satow, a former British Minister to Japan. This is an excellent historical document for research on the end of the Edo era and the Meiji Restoration, but its publication was forbidden in Japan until the end of the Second World War.

It was the 28th of April 1921, when this book was published by a London publisher, which was 11 days before Crown Prince Hirohito landed in England. The author, Satow (1843-1929) first arrived in Japan as a young interpreter at the end of the Edo era, and served as a diplomat in Japan three times, 25 years in total. He was the Minister to Japan during his third posting in Japan for five years until 1900, during which he laid the groundwork for the Anglo-Japan Alliance (1902).

This book is an account of his experiences and observations in Japan with the Meiji Restoration (‘68) occurring in the middle, during his first stay over a period of six years and four months between September 1862 and January 1869 when he returned home, Right after his arrival in Japan, he encountered the Namamugi Incident where feudal retainers of the Satsuma Domain killed and injured British merchants. He was also present at the Satsuma-British War over reparations for the incident (’63), and the artillery attack on Shimonoseki against the Choshu Domain by a fleet of four nations including Britain and France (’64). He was targeted by anti-foreign exclusionist swords and witnessed bloody incidents such as beheadings and harakiri.

In the midst of such situations, Satow’s fluency in Japanese, his name that sounded Japanese (“Satow” is the family name of his father’s side from Sweden and has nothing to do with Japan), and his abundant curiosity helped him build a network both with the Shogunate and the anti-Shogunate forces. While France supported the Shogunate until the end, Britain judged that the emperor would be the real power and succeeded in building a strong relationship with the Meiji government. Satow’s contribution was immense as he built on the close contact he had cultivated with people like Hirofumi Ito, Takamori Saigo and Toshimichi Okubo, since the days when they wereRnothing more than young patriots aspiring to overthrow the shogunate.

More than the historical events, the charm of this book is that it vividly depicts the manners and customs of the time and the feelings of everyday people. The conservative Samurai mentality, a cheating maid who pockets small changes, a quick-witted geisha; all stand out and give a tactile feel of Japan, a feudal society with different social classes.

But this book was banned in Japan until the end of the war. It was translated into Japanese by the Restoration Historiographic Bureau of the then Ministry of Education and Culture as “A Confidential Report on Japan’s Diplomacy at the Meiji Restoration”, with access permitted to only a limited number of researchers. Countless parts were deleted and some whole chapters were dropped entirely.

It was translated and published in its entirety 60 years after the war from the Iwanami Paperback Library. The late Mr. Seiichi Sakata (former professor at Takushoku University), the translator, commented that the book had been banned because it revealed some truths that were inconvenient for those in power who tried to make unadulterated praise for the glory of the Meiji Restoration the foundation of Japan’s national spirit. However, I am inclined to feel that it had much to do with Japan’s swelling sense of national pride in those days.

After the First World War, Japan achieved a major power status. The Crown Prince’s visit was an opportunity to demonstrate Japan’s national dignity and prestige to the European countries exhausted by the Great War. It is not difficult to imagine that this book was not aligned with the images of Japan that the Japanese government wished to project, as it depicted extensively the Japanese society which had lagged behind under the feudal system.

After the Meiji Restoration, Japan invited and hired foreigners, imported foreign documents, and tried to catch up with powerful countries. Having won the Sino-Japanese war and the Russo-Japanese war, it emerged out of the First World War almost unscathed as a victor. Behind the fact of banning a book of a former British Minister to Japan, who had once been Japan’s valued advisor with abundant expertise on East Asia, lurks a hubristic mindset of Japan at that time that there was nothing more to learn from foreign countries.

Japan of that era reminds me of China today. China opened its door to the world with its Reform and Opening-up policy in 1978 and walked on the path of hiding one’s light under a bush and accumulating power within to humbly accept foreign aid. With the rapid growth of national power in the 21th century, Xi Jinping’s administration has abandoned that policy and become more assertive and overbearing.

In April this year, China ordered that the books “worshipping western ideas”, and “embracing all foreign things” to be removed from school’s recommendation book lists and libraries. It seems that biographies of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs are included. Furthermore, the People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the Communist Party of China will publish a monthly list of recommended books for adults to learn about “the Communist Party’s glorious 100 years”.

Remembering pre-war Japan which walked on a militaristic path, there are politicians and researchers inside and outside of Japan who call attention to overbearing China, because it resembles Japan in the past that excluded foreign writings. It may also smack of a psychological shift to the idea that “there is nothing more to learn from foreign countries”.  

So, what happened to Japan afterwards? The Washington Naval Conference was convened about 2 months after the return of Crown Prince Hirohito from the European tour, and it was agreed to limit the construction of battleships in February 1922. The Japan-Britain alliance was abrogated as having served its purpose, and Japan, which had hoped to extend the alliance, felt it was being left high and dry. Looking back, the book banning was a milestone on Japan’s journey of being contained and isolated. I am sure that there is much for China to learn here.

Megumi Nishikawa is a contributing editor of Mainichi Shimbun
The English-Speaking Union of Japan

裕仁皇太子欧州歴訪100年 重なる日中の国家意識
西川 恵 / ジャーナリスト

2021年 7月 27日
今年は昭和天皇が皇太子時代に欧州6カ国歴訪を行って100年だが、皇太子が英国に着く直前、日本に関する本が上梓された。『A Diplomat in Japan』(邦題『一外交官の見た明治維新』)。著者は元駐日英公使アーネスト・サトウ。幕末・明治維新研究に超一級の史料だが、日本では終戦まで禁書扱いされた。













一般社団法人 日本英語交流連盟

English Speaking Union of Japan > Japan in Their Own Words (JITOW) > The 100th Anniversary of the visit of Crown Prince Hirohito to Europe Overlapping Sense of Nationhood of Japan and China