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Sir Ernest Satow

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Sir Ernest Satow

The Right Honourable
Sir Ernest Mason Satow
The young Ernest Mason Satow. Photograph taken in Paris, December 1869.
Born (1843-06-30)30 June 1843
Clapton, London, England
Died 26 August 1929(1929-08-26) (aged 86)
Ottery St Mary, England
Education Mill Hill School
University College London
Occupation Diplomat
Spouse(s) Takeda Kane
Children Takeda Eitaro
Takeda Hisayoshi (1883–1972)
Parents Hans David Christoph Satow
Margaret Mason

Sir Ernest Mason Satow GCMG PC; 30 June 1843 – 26 August 1929), was a British scholar, diplomat and Japanologist.[1]

Satow was 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, née Mason) in Clapton, North London. He was educated at Mill Hill School and University College London (UCL).

Satow was an exceptional linguist, an energetic traveller, a writer of travel guidebooks, a dictionary compiler, a mountaineer, a keen botanist (chiefly with F.V. Dickins) and a major collector of Japanese books and manuscripts on all kinds of subjects before the Japanese themselves began to do so. He also loved classical music and the works of Dante on which his brother-in-law Henry Fanshawe Tozer was an authority. Satow kept a diary for most of his adult life which amounts to 47 mostly handwritten volumes.

As a celebrity, albeit not a major one, he was the subject of a cartoon portrait by Spy in the British Vanity Fair magazine, 23 April 1903.


Satow is better known in Japan than in Britain or the other countries in which he served. He was a key figure in Ivor Roberts was published by Oxford University Press in 2009, and is over 700 pages long.

Satow's diplomatic career

Japan (1862–1883)

Ernest Satow is probably best known as the author of the book A Diplomat in Japan (based mainly on his diaries) which describes the years 1862-1869 when Japan was changing from rule by the Tokugawa shogunate to the restoration of Imperial rule. He was recruited by the Foreign Office straight out of university in London. Within a week of his arrival by way of China as a young student interpreter in the British Japan Consular Service, at age 19, the Namamugi Incident (Namamugi Jiken), in which a British merchant was killed on the Tōkaidō, took place on 14 September 1862. Satow was on board one of the British ships which sailed to Kagoshima in August 1863 to obtain the compensation demanded from the Satsuma clan's daimyo, Shimazu Hisamitsu, for the slaying of Charles Lennox Richardson. They were fired on by the Satsuma shore batteries and retaliated, an action that became known in Britain as the Bombardment of Kagoshima.

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 Honshū and Kyūshū. Satow met Ito Hirobumi and Inoue Kaoru of Chōshū for the first time just before the bombardment of Shimonoseki. He also had links with many other Japanese leaders, including Saigō Takamori of Satsuma (who became a friend), and toured the hinterland of Japan with A.B. Mitford and the cartoonist and illustrator Charles Wirgman.

Satow's rise in the consular service was due at first to his competence and zeal as an interpreter at a time when English was virtually unknown in Japan and the Japanese government still communicated with the West in Dutch. His 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 Chōshū clans, and the gathering of intelligence. He was promoted to full Interpreter and then Japanese Secretary to the British legation, and, as early as 1864, he started to write translations and newspaper articles on subjects relating to Japan. In 1869, he went home to England on leave, returning to Japan in 1870.

Satow was one of the founding 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.[2]

Siam, Uruguay, Morocco (1884–1895)

Satow served in Siam (1884–1887), during which time he was accorded the rare honour of promotion from the Consular to the Diplomatic service,[3] Uruguay (1889–93) and Morocco (1893–95). (Such promotion was extraordinary because the British Consular and Diplomatic services were segregated until the mid-20th century, and Satow did not come from the aristocratic class to which the Diplomatic Service was restricted.)

Japan (1895–1900)

Satow returned to Japan as Anglo-Japanese Treaty of Commerce and Navigation signed in London on 16 July 1894.

On Satow's personal recommendation, Hiram Shaw Wilkinson, who had been a student interpreter in Japan 2 years after Satow, was appointed first, Judge of the British Court for Japan in 1897 and in 1900 Chief Justice of the British Supreme Court for China and Corea.[5]

Satow built a house at Lake Chuzenji in 1896 and went there frequently to relax and escape from the pressures of his work in Tokyo. [6]

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.

China (1900–1906)

Satow served as the British High Commissioner (September 1900 - January 1902) and then Minister in Peking from 1900-1906. He was active as plenipotentiary in the negotiations to conclude the Boxer Protocol which settled the compensation claims of the Powers after the Boxer Rebellion, and he signed the protocol for Britain on 7 September 1901. Satow also observed the defeat of Russia in the Russo-Japanese War (1904–1905) from his Peking post. He signed the Convention Between Great Britain and China.

Retirement (1906–1929)

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.

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. He gave the Rede lecture at Cambridge University in 1908 on the career of Count Joseph Alexander Hübner. It was titled An Austrian Diplomat in the Fifties. Satow chose this subject with discretion to avoid censure from the British Foreign Office for discussing his own career.

As the years passed, Satow's understanding and appreciation of the Japanese evolved and deepened. For example, one of his diary entries from the early 1860s asserts that the submissive character of the Japanese will make it easy for foreigners to govern them after the "samurai problem" could be resolved; but in retirement, he wrote: "... looking back now in 1919, it seems perfectly ludicrous that such a notion should have been entertained, even as a joke, for a single moment, by anyone who understood the Japanese spirit."[7]

Satow's extensive diaries and letters (the Satow Papers, PRO 30/33 1-23) are kept at the Public Record Office at Kew, West London in accordance with his last will and testament. His letters to Geoffrey Drage, sometime MP, are held in the Library and Archives of Christ Church, Oxford. Many of his rare Japanese books are now part of the Oriental collection of Cambridge University Library.

Origin and pronunciation of 'Satow'

In his Family Chronicle (see below), Satow stated that the family name was Sorbian (Wendish) in origin. It means 'village of the sower'. The 'a' in Satow is thus—strictly speaking—a long 'a' (as in "father").

It is probable that Japanese friends or language teachers encouraged Satow to use kanji characters for his name in the 1860s, as is quite common among foreigners resident in Japan even today. This would have ensured the short 'a' pronunciation, there being no native words with a long 'a' in Japanese. The two obvious combinations were 薩道 and 佐藤, both read 'Satoh' with a short 'a'. Of these the former uses the 薩 (Sa) of Satsuma, and Satow himself may have preferred this one, as the Satsuma han was allied with Britain after 1865.


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 of Satow's to and from his family, have been deposited at the Yokohama Archives of History (formerly the British consulate in Yokohama) at the request of Satow's granddaughters.

Satow's second son, Takeda Hisayoshi, became a noted botanist and founder of the Japan Alpine Club. He studied at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and at Birmingham University. A memorial hall to him is in the Oze marshlands in Hinoemata, Fukushima prefecture.

Selected works

In a statistical overview derived from writings by and about Ernest Mason Satow, OCLC/WorldCat encompasses roughly 200+ works in 300+ publications in 9 languages and 4,000+library holdings.[8]

  • 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, and described by Sir Harold Nicolson in his book Diplomacy as "The standard work on diplomatic practice," and "admirable."[9] Sixth edition, edited by Sir Ivor Roberts (2009, ISBN 978-0-19-955927-5).
  • 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 4-925080-28-8
  • The Voyage of John Saris, ed. by Sir E. M. Satow (Hakluyt Society, 1900) mentioned on the William Adams page.
  • The Family Chronicle of the English Satows, by Ernest Satow, privately printed, Oxford 1925.
  • Collected Works of Ernest Mason Satow Part One : Major Works 1998 (includes two works not published by Satow)
  • Collected Works Of Ernest Mason Satow Part Two: Collected Papers 2001
  • 'British Policy', a series of three untitled articles written by Satow (anonymously) in the Japan Times (ed. Charles Rickerby), dated 16 March, 4 May(? date uncertain) and 19 May 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 Kyūshū Institute of Technology (Humanities, Social Sciences), No. 45, March 1997, pp. 33–41]

Books and articles based on the Satow Papers

  • The Diaries and Letters of Sir Ernest Mason Satow (1843-1929), a Scholar-Diplomat in East Asia, edited by Ian C. Ruxton, ISBN 4-8419-0316-X )
  • Korea and Manchuria between Russia and Japan 1895-1904 : the observations of Sir Ernest Satow, British Minister Plenipotentiary to Japan (1895-1900) and China (1900-1906), Selected and edited with a historical introduction, by George Alexander Lensen. -- Sophia University in cooperation with Diplomatic Press, 1966 [No ISBN]
  • A Diplomat in Siam by Ernest Satow C.M.G., Introduced and edited by Nigel Brailey (Orchid Press, Bangkok, reprinted 2002) ISBN 974-8304-73-6
  • The Satow Siam Papers: The Private Diaries and Correspondence of Ernest Satow, edited by Nigel Brailey (Volume 1, 1884–85), Bangkok: The Historical Society, 1997
  • The Rt. Hon. Sir Ernest Mason Satow G.C.M.G.: A Memoir, by Bernard M. Allen (1933)
  • Satow, by T.G.Otte in Diplomatic Theory from Machievelli to Kissinger (Palgrave, Basngstoke and New York, 2001)
  • "Not Proficient in Table-Thumping": Sir Ernest Satow at Peking, 1900-1906 by T.G.Otte in Diplomacy & Statecraft vol.13 no.2 (June 2002) pp.161-200
  • "A Manual of Diplomacy": The Genesis of Satow's Guide to Diplomatic Practice by T.G.Otte in Diplomacy & Statecraft vol.13 no.2 (June 2002) pp.229-243


  • Early Japanese books in Cambridge University Library : a catalogue of the Aston, Satow, and von Siebold collections, Nozomu Hayashi & Peter Kornicki -- Cambridge University Press, 1991. -- (University of Cambridge Oriental publications ; 40) ISBN 0-521-36496-5
  • , Volume 13, Number 2 includes a special section on Satow by various contributors (June, 2002)
  • Entry on Satow in the new Dictionary of National Biography by Dr. Nigel Brailey of Bristol University

See also

People who knew Satow



  • Cullen, Louis M. (2003). OCLC 50694793
  • OCLC 249167170
  • Nussbaum, Louis Frédéric and Käthe Roth. (2005). Japan Encyclopedia. Cambridge: OCLC 48943301
  • SATOW, Rt Hon. Sir Ernest Mason, Who Was Who, A & C Black, 1920–2008; online edn, Oxford University Press, Dec 2007, accessed 11 Sept 2012

External links

  • Asiatic Society of Japan
  • Report of a lecture on Satow in Tokyo 1895-1900 given to the Asiatic Society of Japan
  • Ian Ruxton's Ernest Satow page
  • UK in Japan, Chronology of Heads of Mission
  • Project Gutenberg
Diplomatic posts
Preceded by
Minister Resident and Consul-General to the King of Siam
Succeeded by
Preceded by
Minister Resident at Monte Video, and also Consul-General in the Oriental Republic of the Uruguay
Succeeded by
Walter Baring
Preceded by
Sir Charles Euan-Smith
Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary at Tangier, and also Her Majesty's Consul-General in Morocco
Succeeded by
Sir Arthur Nicolson
Preceded by
Power Henry Le Poer Trench
Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary to His Majesty the Emperor of Japan; and also Consul-General in the Empire of Japan
Succeeded by
Sir Claude MacDonald
Preceded by
Sir Claude MacDonald
Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary to His Majesty the Emperor of China
Succeeded by
Sir John Jordan

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