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Home > Books & Journals > Book Review Last Updated: 08:55 12/20/2007
Book Review #80: November 12, 2007

"Britain and Japan: Biographical Portraits, Volume VI" Compiled and edited by Sir Hugh Cortazzi

Reviewed by Janet Hunter (Professor at the London School of Economics and Political Science)

Title: Britain and Japan: Biographical Portraits, volume VI
Authors: Compiled and edited Sir Hugh Cortazzi
Language: English
Publisher: Japan Society and Global Oriental (Folkestone, Kent)
Date/Time: 2007
Pages: xxiv + 424 pages
ISBN: 978-1-905246-33-5


Since the publication of the first volume in 1994, the chapters in the volumes of the Biographical Portraits series have provided us with an increasingly complex and multifaceted picture of the human interaction at the heart of Anglo-Japanese relations, at all levels of society and in different spheres of activity. This volume, like its predecessors, offers a highly eclectic mixture of personal experiences and life stories, focussing on individuals who, through their ideas and actions, or through the organisations with which they were associated, have contributed to the mutual interaction of the two countries over the past century and more.

This new volume consists of over thirty new case studies, as well as a short account of the visit by the Beatles to Japan in 1966. The portraits range widely, and include politicians, members of the imperial and royal families of the two countries, business leaders, literary and artistic figures, as well as scholars and teachers. The politicians include those such as Winston Churchill and Edward Heath, whose names are not normally associated with the history of Anglo-Japanese relations, but whose attitudes towards Japan were of signal importance at particular times during the 20th century. On the Japanese side, Yoshida Shigeru visited Britain in 1954, while Nitobe Inazō, famous as an interpreter of Japan for Western audiences, spent time in London working for the nascent League of Nations in 1919-20. We learn that court diplomacy was a key factor in communicating goodwill between the two countries, even in the turbulent interwar period, while the first foreign visit by a reigning Japanese monarch, that of the Shōwa Emperor to Britain in 1971, marked a stage in the rebuilding of friendship after the hostility of the Pacific War and Occupation years. Moreover, probably few readers know that princes Albert Victor and George in 1881 opted to be tattooed by Japanese tattooists with dragons on their arms, and they were not alone among visiting members of the English royal family in doing so.

A major part of this volume is devoted to studies of business interaction, and Toyota and Nissan receive particular attention, as do the individuals on both sides involved in the Nissan and Toyota decisions to invest in production plants in Britain in the 1980s-1990s. Other Japanese and British businessmen have their own chapters. In some cases these are individuals whose recent roles in Anglo-Japanese relations are well known, such as Sir Peter Parker, Lord (Eric) Roll and Chino Yoshitoki of Daiwa Securities. Others are business leaders such as Morita Akio, whose careers were not particularly 'Britain-specific', but whose achievements have had a profound effect on life in the UK. Lesser known individuals involved with commerce and business earlier in the century include Frank Guyver Britton, who spent much of his life in Japan as an engineer, and Ernest Comfort, who was sent to Japan in the early 1920s to help develop aircraft production by Mitsubishi.

We also read about British writers who spent shorter or longer periods in Japan Somerset Maugham, Ian Fleming, Frank Tuohy and Angela Carter and whose experiences often shaped their subsequent writing. Several of the chapters focus on those who helped to increase the awareness and understanding of Japanese art and culture in Britain. In the context of the arts and crafts movement, Charles Holme sought to introduce the applied arts of Japan, under the slogan of 'beauty and utility'. The splendid collection of Japanese artefacts in the British Museum was largely the work of Augustus Franks, while James, Lord Bowes, established the first museum in Britain devoted to things Japanese, a collection sadly dispersed in the late 19th century. William Gowland, whose collection also found its way to the British Museum, made a signal contribution to the development of archaeology in Japan. Finally, there are studies of teachers and scholars, including the consul and later academic, J.H.Longford, and Kathleen Drew Baker, a botanist who never visited Japan, but whose research enabled the prosperity of the country's postwar nori production.

Writing a comprehensive appraisal of the content of this volume is impossible. The diversity of subject matter, writing style and approach is immense. Some are strongly academic in formulation, some much less so. Each reader will seek out the chapters that best accord with his or her particular interests. It would be invidious to select particular contributions as better or worse than others. I hope I may use the reviewer's prerogative, however, to note some personal preferences. I enjoyed particularly those chapters that told me about individuals such as Frank Guyver Britton about whom I knew little (though perhaps should have known more), but who devoted much of their lives to Japan and made a quiet contribution to the fabric of Anglo-Japanese relations. The cases made for the contribution of some of these lesser known individuals, such as Frank Gowland, was persuasive. Other chapters shed a new light on some familiar names, such as the journalist Hugh Byas, or the scholar Maruyama Masao. A final strength of the book is the inclusion of a number of personal memoirs, which are likely to constitute an important reference for the historians of the future. Overall, though, there is in this volume something for everyone, whatever the nature of their interest in the history of the relationship between Japan and Britain.

(This review was produced in collaboration with the Japan Society, UK)

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