Sir Hugh Cortazzi in Retrospect

British Royal and Imperial Relations, 1868-2018: 150 Years of Association, Engagement and Celebration
Edited by Peter Kornicki, Antony Best and Sir Hugh Cortazzi, Renaissance Books, 2019

It is true to say, without any fear of contradiction, that everybody who works on the history of Anglo-Japanese relations owes a debt of gratitude to the late Sir Hugh Cortazzi. As an author in his own right, as an editor of many books, and as an enthusiast who encouraged and stimulated those working in the field, Hugh made a great and unforgettable contribution to our understanding of the ties between these two countries. Indeed, to look at the quantity and quality of Hugh’s output between 1984, when he retired from the Diplomatic Service, and 2018, when he passed away, is a humbling experience, for he not only produced so much but also tackled so many different aspects of the relationship. While much of his work dealt with the Meiji years, which was always the period of abiding interest to him, he also composed engaging pen-portraits of his Foreign Office colleagues, and finally in his last co-authored publication, British and Japanese Royal and Imperial Relations, 1868-2018: 150 Years of Association, Engagement and Celebration, he wrote entertainingly about the history of royal ties between Britain and Japan in the period after 1945.

In his own writing, Hugh mixed analysis and anecdote to good effect and, as befits a former diplomat, his arguments were delivered in crisp, accessible prose. His observations also benefitted, of course, from his experience as a diplomat. This not only gave him insights into the realities of politics and policy-making, but also an awareness of the social milieu within which his historical actors circulated. Most notably, he was always happy, both in print and in conservation, to relate that the one man he would not have wanted to serve under in Tokyo was Sir Harry Parkes, the workaholic British minister in Japan from 1865 to 1883.

As Peter Kornicki observes elsewhere in this newsletter, one of Hugh’s greatest achievements as an editor was his role in overseeing many of the Britain and Japan: Biographical Portraits volumes and the offshoots of that series. The breadth of his interest in Anglo-Japanese relations meant that he commissioned chapters on an incredibly varied group of individuals ranging from diplomats to novelists, from scientists to gardeners. Reading these volumes from cover to cover is to bear testament to the sheer complexity and endless fascination of Anglo-Japanese relations. I know of no other bilateral relationship which benefits from such a rich resource, and I am happy to say that I have found it of great value in my own work.

In addition, it has to be said that one of the attractions of producing chapters for this series was that Hugh did not take a rose-tinted view of Anglo-Japanese relations. Despite the fact that these volumes were sponsored by the Japan Society, one always felt that one could write whatever one wanted without any fear of being asked to tone down the argument in order not to rock the boat. As someone who has written about some of the more controversial aspects of Anglo-Japanese relations, this was something that I greatly appreciated. This openness to the complete range of Anglo-Japanese relations, whether friendly or hostile, is one of the attributes that guarantees that the Biographical Portraits series will continue to be of real value to the field for the foreseeable future.

Hugh’s contribution to our understanding of Anglo-Japanese relations was not, though, just limited to his publications. He also helped scholars by agreeing to be interviewed about his time as a diplomat in Japan. Whether he was being asked about his impressions of the San Francisco Peace Treaty of 1951 or his thoughts on Japanese investment in Britain during his time as ambassador, he was always willing to give his time and to express his views in his usual candid manner. Moreover, in everyday conversation he often offered up interesting recollections and insights into diplomacy and the wiles of his erstwhile political masters.

It is not often in one’s life that one meets someone with Hugh’s boundless energy and enthusiasm and it is only right that we are saluting him now two years on from his passing. He was a fine scholar and great company and the field of Anglo-Japanese relations is poorer without him.

Dr Antony Best
London School of Economics

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