Professor Peter Kornicki remembers Sir Hugh Cortazzi

Sir Hugh Cortazzi

It is now two years since Sir Hugh Cortazzi died, on 14 August 2018, and in Japanese tradition we mark his sankaiki on his second death anniversary. His death came as a great shock to me, for I had seen him a couple of weeks previously and he had been as energetic and mentally sharp as always. We spent some time at his home discussing the last stages of a book which we had written together along with Antony Best. This was British Royal and Japanese Imperial relations, 1868-2018: 150 years of association, engagement and celebration, which was published in 2019, after his death. The idea for this book was in fact his. A couple of years earlier, he invited Antony and me to lunch at the RAF Club in Piccadilly – Hugh had been in the RAF during the war and so was entitled to be a member – and filled us up with good food and drink. Only then, when our defences were down, did he come out with his plan for the book! Antony and I were each assigned a third of the book to write, while Hugh himself undertook to write the final third. Paul Norbury of Renaissance Books took up the proposal enthusiastically, and so the book came into being. 

Isles of Gold: Antique Maps of Japan
Published November 1st 1983 by Weatherhill

Anyway, let me get back to the last time I saw him. After we had talked about how the British Royal and Japanese Imperial relations book was shaping up, Hugh brought up an idea for another book, which now, sadly, is unlikely to see the light of day. It was for a book on literary relations between Britain and Japan and he had already given some thought to it: there would be chapters on Natsume Sōseki in London, Edmund Blunden in Japan, Kazuo Ishiguro of course, and I can’t remember what else. I was staggered that he could still come up with fresh ideas for books on Japan!

Hugh learnt his Japanese during the war at SOAS and during the Occupation was based at Iwakuni as a Security Officer. But he is best known for his subsequent diplomatic career, which ended with a long spell as British ambassador to Japan, and for his later chairmanship of the Japan Society of London. By the time he retired from the diplomatic service he was already applying his fertile mind and his formidable energy to the study of a vast range of topics related to Japan, beginning with the representation of Japan in early European maps, which he wrote about in Isles of Gold

To my mind the most significant of his many publications is the series titled Britain and Japan: Biographical Portraits (BJBP). This was kicked off in 1991 with Britain and Japan, 1859-1991: Themes and Personalities, which Hugh edited with Gordon Daniels of Sheffield University and which was published to mark the centenary of the Japan Society. In 1994 this was followed by the first volume of BJBP, edited by Professor Ian Nish of the LSE. Hugh was part of the editorial team for the second volume but he took over the series for the fourth volume and single-handedly produced the rest of the series, ending with the tenth volume which was published in 2016. Altogether the volumes provide a panorama of Anglo-Japanese relations since the 1850s through the lives of politicians, artists, writers, diplomats, scientists and many others whose lives in different ways linked Japan and Britain. Some of the biographies were written by Hugh himself but on top of that he was the one to come up with the names of the individuals to be written about, to commission the biographies and to edit them. Many is the time when I have wished that there were parallel volumes documenting the connections between Japan and France, Germany, Italy or Russia through similar biographies. Altogether it is a wonderful resource and I turn to it often.

Hugh produced many more books on Japan during his long retirement. There was British Envoys to Japan 1859-1972, which he edited and Japanese Studies in Britain, which he and I produced together, an autobiography, a book on the Victorians in Japan, a delightful volume entitled Images of Japan, 1885-1912 : scenes, tales and flowers and a translation of The Thames and I, a memoir by Prince Naruhito who is now the current emperor. He was a wonderfully productive scholar and had an extraordinarily fertile mind, but he also had the energy and determination to bring his ideas to fruition. I miss his inspiration and friendship and I salute his memory.

Professor Peter Kornicki
Emeritus Professor of Japanese Studies, University of Cambridge

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