Ernest Mason Satow

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Sir Ernest Satow, G.C.M.G

Sir Ernest Mason Satow, KBE, G.C.M.G., P.C. (June 30, 1843 - August 26, 1929), a British scholar-diplomat born to an ethnically German father (Hans David Christoph Satow, born in Wismar, then under Swedish rule, naturalised British in 1846) and an English mother (Margaret, nee Mason) in Clapton, North London, and educated at Mill Hill School and University College London (UCL) was a key figure in East Asia and Anglo-Japanese relations, particularly in Bakumatsu (1853-1867) and Meiji Era (1868-1912), Japan.


His career

Ernest Satow is best known as the author of the fascinating A Diplomat in Japan which describes the years 1862-1869 when Japan was changing from rule by the Tokugawa shogunate to the restoration of Imperial rule. Within a week of his arrival as a young student interpreter aged 19, the Namamugi Incident (Namamugi Jiken) in which a British merchant was killed on the Tokaido took place on September 14, 1862. Satow was on board one of the British ships which bombarded Kagoshima in 1863 to punish the Satsuma clan's daimyo (Shimazu Hisamitsu) for the murder of Charles Lennox Richardson and the refusal to pay an indemnity demanded as compensation.

In 1864 Satow was with the allied force (Britain, France, the Netherlands and the United States) which attacked Shimonoseki to enforce the right of passage of foreign ships through the narrow Kanmon Strait between Honshu and Kyushu. Satow met Ito Hirobumi and Inoue Kaoru ( of Choshu for the first time just before the bombardment of Shimonoseki. He also had links with many other Japanese leaders, including Saigo Takamori of Satsuma, and toured the hinterland of Japan with A.B. Mitford and the cartoonist and illustrator Charles Wirgman.

Satow's Japanese language skills quickly became indispensable in the British Minister Sir Harry Parkes's negotiations with the failing Tokugawa shogunate and the powerful Satsuma and Choshu clans, and the gathering of intelligence. He was promoted to full Interpreter and then Japanese Secretary to the British legation, and he started to write translations and newspaper articles on subjects relating to Japan as early as 1864. In 1869 he went home to England on leave, returning to Japan in 1870.

Satow was one of the founder members at Yokohama in 1872 of the Asiatic Society of Japan whose purpose was to study the Japanese culture, history and language (i.e. Japanology) in detail. He lectured to the Society on several occasions in the 1870s, and the Transactions of the Asiatic Society contain several of his published papers. The Society is still thriving today.

After service in Siam (1884 - 1887), during which time he was promoted from the Consular to the Diplomatic service, Uruguay (1889-93) and Morocco (1893-95), Satow returned to Japan as Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary on July 28, 1895, and stayed in Tokyo for five years (though he was in London for Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee in 1897 and met her in August at Osborne, Isle of Wight). On April 17, 1895 the Treaty of Shimonoseki (text here ( had been signed, and Satow was able to observe at first hand the steady build-up of the Japanese army and navy to avenge the humiliation by Russia, Germany and France in the Triple Intervention of April 23, 1895. He was also in a position to oversee the transition to the ending of extraterritoriality in Japan which finally ended in 1899, as agreed by the Anglo-Japanese Treaty of Commerce and Navigation signed in London on July 17, 1894.

Satow was unlucky not to be named the first British Ambassador to Japan, an honour which was bestowed on his successor Sir Claude Maxwell Macdonald in 1905. Satow served as British Minister in Peking from 1900-1906. He was active in the negotiations to conclude the Final Protocol which settled the compensation claims of the Powers after the Boxer Rebellion. He also observed the defeat of Russia in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905) from his Peking post. In 1906 Satow was made a Privy Councillor and is listed on the Historic list of members of the Privy Council. In 1907 he was Britain's second plenipotentiary at the Second Hague Peace Conference.

Satow's extensive diaries and letters (the Satow Papers) are kept at the Public Record Office at Kew, West London in accordance with his last will and testament. Many of his rare Japanese books are now part of the collection of Cambridge University Library. In retirement (1906-1929) at Ottery St Mary in Devon, England he wrote mainly on subjects connected with diplomacy and international law. In Britain he is less well known than in Japan, where he is recognised as perhaps the most important foreign observer in the Bakumatsu and Meiji periods.

Satow was never able as a diplomat serving in Japan to marry his Japanese common-law wife, Takeda Kane, by whom he had two sons, Eitaro and Hisayoshi. The Takeda family letters, including many from Satow to and from his family, have been deposited at the Yokohama Archives of History ( at the request of Satow's granddaughters.

Select Bibliography (Books and articles written by Satow)

  • The Family Chronicle of the English Satows, by Ernest Satow, privately printed, Oxford 1925.
  • The Voyage of John Saris, ed. by Sir E. M. Satow (Hakluyt Society, 1900) mentioned on the William Adams page.
  • A Guide to Diplomatic Practice by Sir E. Satow, (Longmans, Green & Co. London & New York, 1917). A standard reference work used in many embassies across the world (though not British ones!). Now in its fifth edition (1998, ISBN 0582501091).
  • A Diplomat in Japan by Sir E. Satow, first published by Seeley, Service & Co., London, 1921, reprinted in paperback by Tuttle, 2002. (Page numbers are slightly different in the two editions.) ISBN 4925080288
  • A Diplomat in Siam ( by Ernest Satow C.M.G., Introduced and edited by Nigel Brailey (Orchid Press, Bangkok, reprinted 2002) ISBN 9748364736
  • 'British Policy', a series of three untitled articles written by Satow (anonymously) in the Japan Times (ed. Charles Rickerby), dated March 16, May 4(? date uncertain) and May 19, 1866 which apparently influenced many Japanese once it was translated and widely distributed under the title 'Eikoku sakuron' (British policy), and probably helped to hasten the Meiji Restoration of 1868. Satow pointed out that the British and other treaties with foreign countries had been made by the Shogun on behalf of Japan, but that the Emperor's existence had not even been mentioned, thus calling into question their validity. Satow accused the Shogun of fraud, and demanded to know who was the 'real head' of Japan and further a revision of the treaties to reflect the political reality. He later admitted in A Diplomat in Japan (p.155 of the Tuttle reprint edition, p.159 of the first edition) that writing the articles had been 'altogether contrary to the rules of the service' (i.e. it is inappropriate for a diplomat or consular agent to interfere in the politics of a country in which he/she is serving). [The first and third articles are reproduced on pp. 566-75 of Grace Fox, Britain and Japan 1858-1883, Oxford: Clarendon Press 1969, but the second one has only been located in the Japanese translation. A retranslation from the Japanese back into English has been attempted in I. Ruxton, Bulletin of the Kyushu Institute of Technology (Humanities, Social Sciences), No. 45, March 1997, pp. 33-41]

See also

External links

de:Ernest Satow fr:Ernest Satow


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