Japan Briefing: In 400 years, we have had our ups and downs

The first Briton arrived in 1600. Hugh Cortazzi on a relationship full of history
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THE state visit to London by the Japanese Emperor and Empress comes almost 400 years after the first Englishman arrived in Japan. During these four centuries, relations between Britain and Japan have had their ups and downs, but they are now close and cordial, despite the lingering resentment of former British prisoners of war and civilian internees over their ill-treatment in the Far East during the last war. We now need to look forward to the further cementing of friendly relations in the economic, political and cultural fields.

William Adams, the first Englishman to reach Japan, was the pilot on a Dutch ship which foundered off the southern island of Kyushu in 1600. Adams became an adviser to the Shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu, and supervised the building of ships on Western models. When the British East India Company established a trading post at Hirado, an island off Kyushu, in 1613, Adams acted as an intermediary for the British traders, but they thought he had "gone native" and were disinclined to listen to his advice. Adams died in 1620 and the British trading post was shut down in 1623. It had made the elementary mistake of not studying the market properly.

Japan adopted a policy of seclusion for over two centuries, from the early part of the 17th century to the middle of the 19th century. During these years only desultory attempts were made to establish contacts with the Japanese, and the initiative in forcing the reopening of Japan in the 1850s was left to the Americans. But the British soon took the lead in developing trade with Japan through the treaty ports which were opened as a result of the treaties concluded in 1858.

In the early years of the treaty port system, life for the foreign merchants was difficult and dangerous. There was much anti-foreign feeling. British warships were involved in attacks on Japanese ports in defence of British interests in the civil war of 1868, which led to the overthrow of the Tokugawa Shogunate and the so-called Meiji restoration, when nominal power was returned to the Mikado, who was given the Western title of Emperor.

The British were led by the domineering Sir Harry Parkes Although nominally neutral, the British Legation, through Ernest Satow, Parkes's able Japanese expert, supported the clans seeking to overthrow the Tokugawa regime. This ensured that the new regime looked first to Britain for advice and help. In the next two decades almost half the foreign advisers employed by the Japanese government in engineering, teaching and other professions came from Britain:

Richard Brunton established the Japanese lighthouse service and Henry Dyer was the first head of the engineering college which was later incorporated in the University of Tokyo. The first railway in Japan from Yokohama to Tokyo was built and initially run by British railway engineers. The British architect Josiah Conder developed Western-style building in Japan. James Milne was a pioneer in the study of seismology. Thomas Blakiston, zoologist and ornithologist, demonstrated the difference between the fauna of the northern island of Hokkaido and the main island of Honshu, drawing what came to be called the "Blakiston line".

In 1872, a major Japanese mission to the West, led by Prince Iwakura Tomomi, spent months in Britain visiting and inspecting industrial centres. The mission contributed significantly to the development of Japan and to British trade with Japan, but it failed in its initial efforts to persuade the Western powers to agree to the revision of the treaties of 1858, which the Japanese regarded as "unique", not least because of the provisions providing for extra-territorial rights in the treaty ports. In fact, revised treaties only came into force in 1899, after agreement had been reached with Britain and Japan had adopted Western-style civil and criminal codes.

At the turn of the century, the British and Japanese governments were suspicious of Russian intentions in the Far East, and in 1902 the first Anglo-Japanese alliance was concluded. The existence of the alliance was an important factor in the defeat inflicted on Russia by Japan in the war of 1905-6. There was much admiration in Britain for Japanese prowess on land and sea.

In the First World War, Japanese naval forces assisted the Allies, especially in the Mediterranean. But Japan was disappointed at the failure to include a clause in the Versailles agreements banning racial discrimination, and with the end of the Anglo-Japanese alliance in 1922, relations began to deteriorate. Although it seemed possible in the 1920s that parliamentary democracy might take root in Japan, the power of the military grew. Japanese aggression in China caused increasing alarm and Anglo-Japanese relations worsened. The Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbor were followed by the Japanese capture of British possessions in the Far East. British prisoners suffered grievously, especially on the Burma-Siam railway.

After the end of the war, in 1945, British and Commonwealth Forces took part in the occupation of Japan but their role was a subsidiary one and the Peace Treaty with Japan which came into force in 1952 was essentially an American creation. At first the British attitude towards the new Japan was one of suspicion of a revival of militarism, combined with fears about unfair Japanese trade competition. It was not until the late 1960s that the British began to recognise Japan's potential and to make significant efforts to expand exports to the Japanese market.

In the 1970s and 1980s the increasing importance of Japan as a world economic and political power was recognised, especially by Conservative prime ministers. Ted Heath was the first British Prime Minister to visit Japan, but it was Margaret Thatcher who ensured that British relations with Japan were given a new impetus: she was seen in Japan as a phenomenon to be respected. Efforts were made to attract Japanese manufacturing investment. Some 275 Japanese companies have invested in Britain, comprising some 40 per cent of Japanese investment in Europe. These investments have brought increased employment, advanced technology and new, efficient management systems. Successful campaigns have been waged to increase exports to Japan, so that these were worth pounds 4.2bn last year.

The improvement in economic relations has been matched not only by an increase in political co-operation, but also by cultural exchanges at all levels. British people who knew Japan and spoke the language used to be rare. Today, there are many thousands of young Britons with experience of Japan. Nevertheless, much more needs to be done to increase cultural understanding and ensure that economic frictions do not recur. The Japanese people and their economy face serious challenges. Deregulation and restructuring are needed, and we need to co-operate with Japan in tackling the economic problems of Asia.

This year is Britain in Japan Year, and in 2001, 10 years after the Japan Festival in the United Kingdom which did so much to promote an understanding and appreciation of the wealth of Japanese culture, the Japanese government intends to present a modern Japan once more.

We should all warmly welcome the imperial visitors from Japan. They are a symbol of the new Japan, which has changed greatly since the war and become a parliamentary democracy and a significant world power.

Sir Hugh Cortazzi was British ambassador to Japan from 1980 to 1984.