Bidding Sir Hugh Cortazzi Farewell: Former UK Ambassador to Japan Dies at 94


“I am glad to think that we have got away from the era when, so story has it, whenever a paper about Japan was submitted to one of your predecessors he used simply to write on it ‘I do not like the Japanese.’ I confess, however, that I still have the impression that Ministers as a whole tend only to focus on Japan when a problem arises with it.”(*1)

Sir Hugh Cortazzi wrote these words near the beginning of his final dispatch to London as British ambassador to Japan, as a forthright “parting shot.” It was February 8, 1984, and Sir Hugh was 60 years old. In the 34 years since then, the lingering ill feeling toward Japan in Britain has virtually vanished. I am happy to say that there are signs in both countries of the desire to return to a close alliance.

Sir Hugh was one of those who laid the foundations for this goodwill. He was ambassador during the premiership of Margaret Thatcher. During his tenure, he played a part in the establishment of a first Nissan automotive factory in Britain, but was also vexed by Tokyo’s failure to express clear support for London in the Falklands War.

Like all ambassadors, he experienced days of both success and challenge. In fact, though, it was after he retired at 60 that he made the most remarkable and lasting contribution to changing public opinion in Britain regarding Japan.

He continually studied and wrote with the aim of producing a comprehensive history of relations between Japan and Britain since the modern era, including biographical sketches of the unforgettable characters involved. He is the author or editor of so many works on this topic, it would be a herculean task to read them all. Any student who made the attempt would certainly be impressed at Sir Hugh’s towering erudition.

Crown Prince Naruhito wrote an account of the two years he spent from 1983 at Merton College, Oxford University. Rendered into lucid English by Sir Hugh, it was published as The Thames and I: A Memoir of Two Years at Oxford in 2006. Perhaps because the Imperial Household Agency wished to limit access to the crown prince’s personal account, it only allowed the work to appear in a few Tokyo bookstores when it was initially published in Japanese in 1993. As such, it was reluctant to approve a translation. Sir Hugh’s perseverance overcame the agency’s opposition, so he could bring the English-language version to the light of day.

A valuable addition to the many records of foreign study by Japanese writers, Crown Prince Naruhito’s excellent memoir displays his keen observation and fresh sensitivity. Sir Hugh performed a great service in making it available to English-speaking readers. Now that the crown prince is due to accede to the throne in 2019, we should recall and praise Sir Hugh’s translation once more.

Hugh Cortazzi was conscripted in 1943 and learned Japanese while serving in the Royal Air Force. He acted as an interpreter when Japanese forces surrendered in Singapore at the end of World War II. In October 1954, Prime Minister Yoshida Shigeru made a visit to Britain. Despite his long prewar diplomatic career, including spending two years as ambassador to Britain, Yoshida was surprisingly unable to speak English. Cortazzi interpreted between the Japanese leader and Prime Minister Winston Churchill. When Cortazzi went to see him off, apparently Yoshida said, “I hope you didn’t find too much difficulty with my cockney Japanese.”

Interestingly, Yoshida’s grandson Asō Tarō always says that his own English is a mixture of California and cockney, so it is difficult to understand. There seems to be a genetic resemblance in their excuses. I wanted to make this remark to Sir Hugh, as he leaned on his walking stick in the Royal Air Force Club, but now I cannot.

I wonder if he would have acknowledged my comment with that distinctive small smile of his, which always seemed to contain a degree of irony. Sir Hugh wrote regular biting columns on Japan’s leading politicians of today, Asō Tarō and Abe Shinzō. He would not hide his distaste for them when we spoke face to face, even though he knew I had worked as a speechwriter for both. While he intellectually accepted the presence of patriotism in Japan, he never lost his inner wariness of it.

Sir Hugh spent his life combating ignorance and prejudice about Japan in Britain, yet recently he felt some uneasiness about his former home. He had begun to question whether it was the same Japan as the one he loved. I wanted him to understand that there was no need to worry about this dilemma and to be able to see this with his own eyes. It is a great shame that he will not be able to.

Affection, doubt, and at time disillusionment. This seems to be a common theme among Sir Hugh’s generation of those linked to Japan during its postwar reconstruction. As his British compatriots came to pass away—the journalist George Bull (1929–2001) and the Japan scholar Geoffrey Bownas (1923–2011) come to mind—in his later years, Sir Hugh found it more difficult to find conversation partners at the Japanese Embassy in Britain. In part due to his lifelong, somewhat stubborn nature, he cut an increasingly lonely figure.

If my father had lived, he would have been exactly the same age as Sir Hugh. Each time I met him, he would bemoan that his weak legs meant that he could not go to Japan, and I would always plan to meet him again the next time I was in London. It is with great sorrow that I think I can no longer do so.

Sir Hugh died on August 14, 2018, at the age of 94. May he rest in peace.

(Originally written in Japanese. Banner photo: Former British Ambassador to Japan Sir Hugh Cortazzi during an interview in London in January 2002. © Jiji.)

(*1) ^ Sir Hugh’s parting dispatch, titled “Japan Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow,” is carried in Matthew Parris and Andrew Bryson, Parting Shots (London: Viking, 2010) pp. 82–85.

crown prince Britain Hugh Cortazzi