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Home > Debates Last Updated: 14:32 03/09/2007
Debate: Commentary (January 9, 2003)

Former British Ambassador Thought Japanese Lacked a Moral Code

J. Sean Curtin (Professor, Japanese Red Cross University)

On 31 December 2002, the British government declassified various papers written in 1972 by Sir John Arthur Pilcher, the then British ambassador to Japan (1967-72). The release of such documents normally gets practically no media attention and is mainly of interest to historians. However, the former ambassador's observations that the Japanese were secretive, narrow-minded egoists with no moral code or international outlook did spark some media interest in Japan.* The ambassador's views provide an insight into the elitist thinking of British diplomats at the time and show that Anglo-Japanese relations have come a long way in the intervening decades.

Under the British 30-year secrecy rule, it is standard practice to make public formerly classified and confidential documents. Many items written by Sir John Pilcher and his predecessors are already available to the public and offer fascinating glimpses into how British representatives viewed Japan. In previously published documents, Sir John offered his own personal views on various topics ranging from the nature of the Japanese political establishment to the situation of Japanese women in society.**

Amongst the December 2002 release is an analysis by Pilcher of the Japanese psyche for the then British Foreign Secretary, Sir Alec Douglas-Home. The report appears in a letter dated 8 June 1972. Sir John believed that formal rules of behaviour were paramount in Japanese society and an excessive reliance on them led the Japanese to be deficient of what Pilcher called a proper moral code. This perceived Japanese trait is referred to by the ambassador as "form" in his essay. Pilcher believed that "form" was particularly problematic for Japanese people when they ventured abroad as in such a situation the societal rules that normally guide Japanese individuals are absent. Pilcher wrote, "Thus the bad man restrained in Japan by form with a sense of shame, but no inkling of sin, behaves abroad unabashedly badly." He then goes on to expand on this notion to show how his "form" theory might explain the behavior of Japanese troops overseas during WWII. "I submit that the evil behavior of the Japanese during the last war was basically due to these factors and of course to a traditional contempt for the prisoners of war aided by a deliberate policy to humiliate the former colonial rulers in front of their erstwhile Asian subjects."

While Sir John is absolutely right to condemn the horrible abuses and terrible crimes committed by Japanese troops during the war, it never seemed to occur to the ambassador that the same theory he expounds could also be equally applied to the immoral actions of British troops abroad in both the prewar and postwar periods. Furthermore, Pilcher's idea implicitly suggests that the British were in some respects morally superior to the Japanese.

Within Pilcher's own lifetime, British soldiers committed terrible atrocities against unarmed civilians in many countries ranging from India to Ireland and displayed the same immoral nature that Pilcher describes amongst wartime Japanese troops. Indeed, the very year Sir John wrote his analysis, British soldiers murdered 13 unarmed Irish civilians on 30 January 1972 during a civil rights march in Londonderry, Northern Ireland. The gravity of this grave crime is something that Britain only truly began to acknowledge in 2002 when soldiers who witnessed the slaughter were finally allowed to tell the truth to a special inquiry.***

While there is no doubt that Sir John was being sincere in his analysis of Japan, his inability to see that there was an inherent double-standard in his writing is revealing about the attitude that many British and European scholars took towards non-Europeans in the early postwar decades. In a lot of writing from this period there was a tendency to see the Japanese as somehow morally inferior to the British and Europeans, while neglecting similar immoral tendencies in British and European society. Fortunately, there has been a great deal of progress over the last three decades and analysis of non-European cultures has become more balanced. The field of Japanese studies has made great advances, helping to produce more accurate analysis of Japanese society. The British Foreign Office has also considerably changed and today Anglo-Japanese relations stand on a much stronger footing than they did in the early seventies when Pilcher was ambassador.


* British Envoy Painted Japanese as Narrow-minded Egoists
The Japan Times, 1 January 2003

** Series Two: British Foreign Office Files for Post-War Japan, 1952-1980
(Public Record Office Classes FO 371 and FCO 21)
Part 6: Complete Files for 1966-1968
Part 7: Complete Files for 1969-1971

*** Bloody Sunday Soldier Tells of Horror at Army Killings
Rosie Cowan, The Guardian, Thursday 17 October 2002

The Bloody Sunday Inquiry

Amritsar Massacre

The Retrospective History of Kenya (Mau Mau Rebellion)

Other Related GLOCOM articles

Anti-foreign Sentiment in Japan: France and Western Europe Comparison
J. Sean Curtin, Social Trends: Series #1, GLOCOM Platform, 13 August 2002

Japanese Student Opinion About Korea: England-Ireland Comparison
J. Sean Curtin, Opinions, GLOCOM Platform, 8 July 2002

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