1613: Will Adams leads England’s first foray onto Japanese soil

In 1613 the East India Company opened the era of formal Anglo-Japanese relations when, emulating its European rivals, it established a trading ‘factory’ at Hirado. Its efforts were aided by the presence of a sailor called Will Adams, who had arrived on a Dutch ship 13 years previously.

With his knowledge of nautical science and his political tact, Adams had carved out an influential position for himself at the court of the military leader (or Shogun) Ieyasu Tokugawa, who ruled Japan on behalf of the emperor. Adams had even been made an honorary samurai.

With Adams as its leading figure, the factory operated for 10 years, but in 1623 a lack of profits forced it to close. By this time, storm clouds were, in any case, gathering, for the shogunate was growing increasingly anxious about the foreign presence in Japan. In 1635 Ieyasu’s grandson, Iemitsu, banned Christianity and announced that foreign trade would be restricted to one Dutch and one Chinese trading post at the port of Nagasaki. And thus, for 200 years Japan was largely cut off from the world.

1858: Japan opens for business again

The 1850s saw Japan’s long policy of seclusion come to an end. The United States took the lead in ‘reopening’ the country but the British were not far behind: in 1858 Lord Elgin took time out from waging war on China to sign a commercial treaty with the shogunate

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The British were highly satisfied with the visit, one of Elgin’s staff declaring: “I must beg to state that the impression which Japan and the Japanese have left on the minds of all, is of the most pleasing description”. The British enthusiasm may be explained by the fact that the treaty placed Japan in a subordinate position, forcing it to open ports, and forbidding it from setting its own tariff rates.

Britain soon sent its first diplomatic representative, Sir Rutherford Alcock, to Japan, while merchants flocked to the ports of Yokohama, Nagasaki and, in time, Kobe.

1869: A British royal picks the perfect moment

In 1869 Queen Victoria’s second son, Prince Alfred, travelled to Japan on an official visit. His arrival coincided with a crucial moment in Japanese history, for the Tokugawa shogunate had just been overthrown by a new government under the nominal leadership of the Meiji emperor. The new regime was torn between those who wished to expel the west and those who realised that Japan had to adapt itself to the modern world.

The prince’s visit couldn’t, therefore, have been better timed for it showed that Britain was prepared to treat Japan with respect. It also drew the country towards the European orbit. Britons would soon be playing a role in the modernising of many aspects of Japanese life, not least the creation of its navy.

1885: Gilbert and Sullivan’s Mikado causes a stir

Seeking a new means of satirising Victorian society, which had been gripped by a fascination with Japanese culture, WS Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan hit upon the idea in 1885 of setting their next opera, The Mikado, in Japan. The production was an immediate success, and cemented the public perception of Japan as a quaint, fairy-tale paradise.

Initially, the Japanese did not take kindly to this caricature and what was seen as mockery of the emperor, and they staged protests when it was performed in Yokohama.

Britain’s attitude to the opera changed when Japan rose as a great power in the early 20th century. In 1907, when a Japanese prince visited Britain, the D’Oyly Carte Company was forbidden from staging a new production and military bands were told not to play the songs.

1902: Two nations strike a momentous deal

In February 1902 Japanese students staged a torch-lit parade around the British legation in Tokyo to celebrate the fact that their country had just signed an alliance with Britain. Japan – a nation that had only brought its policy of seclusion to an end 50 years earlier – was now the ally of the world’s greatest power

The alliance came about because both countries were concerned about Russian expansion in the far east, but for Japan it was much more than this: it was also a symbol that it had been accepted by the west.

The alliance was an important strategic pillar for both nations. It proved vital in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–05 – which was fought over Korea and Manchuria and led to victory for Japan – and the First World War. It also led to a blossoming of relations between the two states’ royal families, culminating in visits by Crown Prince Hirohito and Edward, Prince of Wales in 1921 and 1922 respectively.

1941: Japan mauls the British empire

On 8 December 1941 Japanese forces attacked Hong Kong and Malaya, sounding the death knell for the British empire in Asia. The Anglo-Japanese alliance had disguised the fact that the two countries had different wishes for China’s future, with Britain supporting an ‘open door’ for trade and Japan attempting to carve out a sphere of influence for itself in the region. In the interwar period these tensions descended into outright enmity.

Britain was unable to spare sufficient forces to defend its eastern possessions in 1941, and so Japanese aggression met little resistance. On 10 December Japan sunk one of Britain’s most modern battleships, HMS Prince of Wales, and Hong Kong fell on Christmas Day. On 15 February, Singapore, a supposedly impregnable fortress, was forced to surrender, and by April much of Burma had been conquered. The erstwhile pupil had taught its teacher a lesson.

1945: PoWs’ treatment casts a long shadow

In September 1945 the first British journalists reached Singapore following the end of the Pacific War. What they found there, in the form of half-starved and maltreated Allied prisoners of war, was to sour Anglo-Japanese relations for decades.

The PoWs’ ordeal became a key element in British culture, with films, plays, books and works of art representing their suffering, while the prisoners themselves formed a vocal lobbying group. As a result, despite the fact that Japan was an important member of the Cold War alliance system against the Soviet bloc, the British government had to be cautious about the speed at which it restored relations. Even as late as 1971, the visit to Britain by Emperor Hirohito proved to be a distinctly fraught affair.

1986: Nissan sets up shop in Sunderland

In 1986 the Japanese car manufacturer Nissan opened a state-of-the-art factory in Sunderland to produce its latest design, the Bluebird, for the British and European markets. This was the culmination of years of negotiations by the British government to get more foreign direct investment from Japan, which was by then the second largest capitalist economy in the world.

The fact that Nissan was willing to invest in Britain was a sign that some of the internal problems that had bedevilled the British economy in the postwar era were passing, but it also showed that Anglo-Japanese relations themselves had turned a corner and that the bitter legacy of the war was now passing into history. This was also evident in 1981 when the Royal Academy staged the highly successful Great Japan Exhibition, with art and artefacts from the Tokugawa era (1600–1868).

Antony Best is a senior lecturer in international history at LSE, who specialises in the Anglo-Japanese relationship.


This article was first published in the Christmas 2013 issue of BBC History Magazine