Obituary: Sir John Figgess

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The Independent Online
Sir John Figgess was a soldier, diplomatist, expert on Japan and world authority on oriental porcelain. To excel in so many fields and to do so with such style, enthusiasm and good humour marked him as a man of unusually high quality.

He was the son of an Ulsterman killed in the Great War, and it was with difficulty that his mother put him through Whitgift Middle School, Croydon. Funds would not stretch to a university; instead, he went to Japan as a commercial trainee with Strong & Co and began his lifelong study of that country and its language and culture.

The five or six years from 1933 were of course the period when Japanese militarism was gathering its full strength, and by the outbreak of war in Europe Figgess was well equipped for the career in army intelligence on which he then embarked. Following Pearl Harbor he was sent first to India and then to the headquarters of the Supreme Allied Commander, South East Asia, where his fluent Japanese was put to good use in the reading of Japanese communications and in the successful emasculation of the pro- Japanese Indian National Army formed and led by Subhas Chandra Bose.

With Allied victory Figgess decided to continue as a soldier. He was a natural choice as a British liaison officer at General MacArthur's occupation headquarters in Tokyo, and he formed there a warm regard for the sweeping and generous reforms with which MacArthur sought to build the foundations of a new and democratic Japan. Figgess also played an important part in the interrogations of suspected war criminals. But most important of all he forged links with many of those destined to lead the new Japan. In particular he formed a lifelong friendship with the family of Shigeru Yoshida who became Japan's first post-war prime minister.

Figgess brought these valuable contacts to his next job as assistant military adviser at the UK Liaison Mission in Tokyo and thereafter assistant military attache, with the rank of Lt Col. When the Mission became the British Embassy upon the signing of the Peace Treaty, Sir Esler Denning, our first post-war ambassador, set great store by Figgess's contribution. Figgess was one of the first to recognise that Japan was destined for economic success and throughout his life he argued that this should be seen not as a threat to the West but rather as an opportunity to profit from Japan's growing prosperity. It was during this period that he met and married Alette Idenburg of the Dutch Liaison Mission. He built with her the foundations not only of a long and conspicuously happy marriage, but also of what later became a notable collection of oriental works of art, ceramics and lacquerware in particular.

From 1953 to 1956 there was an interregnum at the War Office where he dealt, inter alia, with the developing drama in Indochina. But then he returned to Tokyo as Military Attache in the rank of Colonel. He was to serve in Japan from then without a break until in 1961 his illustrious military career of 22 years came to an end, whereupon he made an unusual transition to the Foreign Office by accepting the appointment of Counsellor, Information, at the British Embassy in Tokyo.

The Foreign Office did well to take him on. He turned what in any case was a key position into one of pivotal importance, and a succession of ambassadors benefited hugely from his ability to interpret events and trends in a country now developing at a dazzling pace. At the same time he helped to present Britain in a favourable light to the Japanese, no easy matter when we were declining almost as fast as they were developing. His contributuion was recognised when on his retirement in 1969, he was appointed KBE, an unusual distinction for someone of counsellor's rank.

He retired a little early in order to take charge of the British Pavilion at Expo 70 in Osaka, a world exposition on a scale never seen before and almost certainly never to be seen again. It was an inspired appointment. With his usual flair he quickly grasped that Japan's purpose in organising so vast an event was not so much to announce to the world that she had arrived as to demonstrate to the Japanese people that the government's policies and their own hard work had lifted them to a high position in the league table of nations. He set out therefore to show the Japanese that Britain too had a lot to offer in the post-war world. He recruited attractive, intelligent and bilingual girls, half British and half Japanese (these came from the Sacred Heart Convent School in Tokyo where Figgess's own daughters were educated) as hostesses and with their help and a series of brilliantly conceived, often improvised, initiatives, put Britain on the Expo map in a big way. Invitations to lunch at the Pavilion were prized (he had persuaded the great Trompetto at the Savoy to make one of his promising young British chefs available) and there was a stedy flow of influential government business and cultural leaders from all parts of Japan. Sixty million people passed through the Expo turnstiles in six months, and all but about one million were Japanese: about half the total population. Once again he had Britain punching well above her weight and I was happy to be able to play a small part as his deputy.

Figgess was now 61 and his life of public service was done. He might reasonably have settled for genuine retirement, instead he set out to conquer yet another, quite different world. Though without any academic grounding in the fine arts he had the gifts of a discerning eye and a sure instinct for the best. I once watched him go through a priceless and entirely private - indeed secret - collection of Chinese pots, greeting each magnificent piece as an old and cherished friend, and treating me, his host, and our three wives to an account of its provenance and the reasons why it was worth the huge sum spent on it. "So that's where it got to" he said, with a broad grin, about one sumptuous piece.

In 1973 he was invited on to the board of Christie, Manson & Woods, with responsibility for eastern art, in particular Japanese, Chinese and Korean. Over the years he travelled widely, visiting the great museums of the world and gaining the stature of an international authority in his field. As early as 1960 he had published, with Fujio Koyama, Two Thousand Years of Oriental Ceramics, and The Heritage of Japanese Ceramics followed in 1973. But his was no narrow scholastic interest. He gave Christie's an invaluable entree into Japan, where collectors now had great sums to spend on the valuable works he tracked down for them. When he conducted, in his fluent Japanese, an auction there for Christie's it was not only the first such art sale ever held in Japan but, as he explained to me, the first major auction of any kind: the concept was quite new to them.

His direct involvement at Christie's ended in 1982, but he remained active in the field for many more years with the Percival David Foundation of Chinese Art and the Oriental Ceramics Society, where his three years as President culminated in 1990 with his organisation at the British Museum of the very well received Porcelain for Palaces exhibition.

John Figgess's almost limitless zest for life and people stayed with him to the end, as did his constant readiness to entertain and often embrace new ideas and movements, most recently that for Britain in Europe. He remained the best and most entertaining of companions.

John George Figgess, soldier, diplomatist and oriental porcelain expert: born 15 November 1909; OBE 1949, KBE 1969; CMG 1960; Information Counsellor, British Embassy, Tokyo 1961-68; Commissioner General for Britain, World Exposition, Osaka, Japan 1968-70; a director of Christie, Manson and Woods 1973-82; married 1948 Alette Idenburg (two daughters); died Oxford 20 March 1997.