The Growing Power of Japan, 1967-1972: analysis and assessments from John Pilcher and the British Embassy, Tokyo, compiled and edited by Sir Hugh Cortazzi

Growing Power of Japan cover

The Growing Power of Japan, 1967-1972: analysis and assessments from John Pilcher and the British Embassy, Tokyo
Compiled and edited by Sir Hugh Cortazzi
Renaissance Books in association with the Japan Society (2014)
433 pages
ISBN 978-1-898823-06-3

Review by Sir David Warren

Sir John Pilcher (1912-1990) was British Ambassador in Tokyo from 1967 to 1972. These were important years for Japan. The “iron triangle” of Liberal Democratic Party politicians, Japanese business and the bureaucracy, ruled supreme. It delivered exponential economic growth, which in turn brought renewed national self-confidence, not least in the wake of the successful 1964 Olympics, but also serious environmental damage. Left-wing noises often seemed increasingly irrelevant. The worldwide upsurge of student protest was felt in Tokyo, as on campuses in Europe and the US, but to little political effect. Japan prospered within the security alliance with the US: but tensions in the relationship remained, climaxing in the shocks of 1971, with President Nixon’s overture to China and abandonment of fixed exchange rates.

John Pilcher brought the mind of a scholar as well as a diplomat to his post. He had served as a language student in the Japan consular service before World War Two. In the 1950s he had been head of the Far Eastern Department of the Foreign Office. He was also a man with a finely-developed sensitivity to Japan’s history and culture, and, perhaps less common among his peers, Japanese philosophy and religion.

He took up his role at a time when relations between Britain and Japan had yet to achieve the sense of partnership that has existed for much of the last thirty years. Although there was increasing interest in the UK in Japan’s economic and social development, residual bitterness over Japan’s wartime behaviour persisted. Economic relations were marked by continual friction over trade barriers which the Japanese showed little interest in removing. Pilcher recognised the importance of getting British politicians and businessmen to understand Japan’s potential and develop closer links, not just in the commercial sphere.

Until traditional methods of diplomatic reporting were swept away by instant electronic communication, it was customary for ambassadors, in addition to their daily letters and telegrams, to produce longer reports, known as despatches, which developed broader themes at greater length. Those of general interest were printed and distributed widely within the Foreign Office and other departments. Sir Hugh Cortazzi, one of John Pilcher’s distinguished successors as Ambassador, has collected and edited Pilcher’s surviving despatches from Tokyo in this handsome volume.

In reading these detailed and sometimes learned essays, it is interesting to reflect on how, while some themes are timeless, so much in the geo-political context has changed. Pilcher was reporting at a time when there was a fear that Japan was as likely to be seduced by the “pull” of China as to maintain the alliance with the US. At the same time, a sense that nationalism was only dormant, coupled with a suspicion of the Sōka Gakkai Buddhist cult and its political offshoot, the Kōmeito, encouraged fears of a fascist resurgence. The UK was withdrawing from east of Suez, the US’s military might was being found deficient in Vietnam. How could Britain exploit more actively Japan’s rapid development as an economic powerhouse? And wouldn’t this be immeasurably helped, as Pilcher rightly notes in April 1970, by our joining the (then) EEC [European Economic Community]?

This book provides both a political history of the era and a fascinating commentary on it. In addition to the major set-pieces clearly written by Pilcher himself, there are analyses by members of the Embassy staff on Japanese social and economic policies, and political developments. In 1969, for example, we have a report on Japanese science and technology innovation and later a detailed memorandum on the Government’s White Paper on the quality of life in Japan – health, social security and housing. Trade features strongly throughout: Japanese protectionism needs to be tackled and British exporters need to try harder. The first “British Week” was held in Tokyo in October 1969, the year that Britain achieved a balance in visible trade. Pilcher gives an entertaining account of the commercial and cultural activity that this included (whose idea, one wonders, was it to choose “The Battle of Britain” as the film representing British cinema?).

John Pilcher understood the growing importance of commercial diplomacy, but acknowledged that it was not his métier. He had, however, a profound cultural understanding of Japan, and it is his cultural analysis that lies at the heart of this book. His theme, developed at length across a number of the despatches, is the importance of understanding Japan as an “abnormally cohesive” society – a monoculture (although he does not use this modern neologism) – and the Japanese as a people “without a philosophy or moral code of universal application.” These arguments are extended across despatches dealing with the contemporary mood, the role of women and student rebellion. There is an impressively detailed and persuasive analysis of the role of the Emperor, including as the head of Shinto, submitted in advance of the State Visit to Britain in 1971. Much of Pilcher’s writing is imbued with a sense of regret for a lost Japan that he had known, before the war and the environmental depredations of rapid post-war economic growth.

There is some excellent social and economic observation in these essays, particularly a penetrating piece from July 1970 on “Japan’s Changing Society and the New Generation.” There is a powerful sense throughout of the uniqueness of Japan, with an abundance of historical, literary and philosophical allusion. But some of the political and economic analysis is modulated through this cultural prism too, which seems to me on occasion a weakness. For example, the “Nixon shocks” of 1971 were turning points in twentieth-century history: they deserved a deeper analysis of the geo-political implications for the Asia- Pacific region than the psychological generalisations (we even have a reference to the “end of the Pinkerton-Butterfly honeymoon”) in Pilcher’s despatch [the fictional Pinkerton abandons his Japanese wife in Madame Butterfly].

These memoranda were not written as public documents, and some of the tone and judgements will grate on modern audiences. It was customary at the time Pilcher was writing for Ambassadors to regard their correspondence with the Foreign Office as privileged and private communication between like-minded officials and attitudes towards the world outside that closed circle inevitably seem to us rather condescending. John Pilcher wrote with considerable literary style and wit: some of this will strike modern readers as a little self-conscious, and more than once the Ambassador finds himself led astray in pursuit of a lively metaphor.

The judgements on Japan are also sometimes couched in terms that an Ambassador today, nervous of a despatch ending up on the front page of a national newspaper, would probably not use. But Sir Hugh Cortazzi is right not to have edited the record in any way. He observes at one point that he paused over including one disparaging piece on the Japanese businessman abroad, whose critical tone puzzled the Foreign Office and which some members of the Embassy thought ill-judged. But he was right not to leave it out: it is important that the record should be as complete as possible, even if, with similar themes being developed over a period of nearly five years, there is inevitably a little repetition.

How influential were these despatches in changing British attitudes towards Japan? It is hard to tell. These lengthy and erudite essays belong to another age, compared with reports written for modern standards of official and political attention span. It would have been interesting to have had a little more here on the FCO reaction to some of these reports: there is a telling comment by the head of the FCO’s Planning Staff, (later Sir) Percy Cradock, in October 1970 on John Pilcher’s “hedging his bets” on the possibility of a revival of Japanese militarism.

But the level of expertise in Japan, and the unique nature of its complex political and business culture, is impressive. Many of the younger diplomats whose research and contacts informed John Pilcher’s analysis and judgement reflected those values, and went on to distinguished careers themselves. And the groundwork was laid during those years – for closer political contacts (Ted Heath, the first British Prime Minister to visit Japan, went to Tokyo in 1972, a few months after John Pilcher had been succeeded by Sir Fred Warner), as well as a more focused and professional approach to doing business with Japan, led by Hugh Cortazzi himself.

Above all, one has the sense of a man who combined many admirable values – modesty, good humour, a profound attachment to spiritual values, deep culture, a capacity for friendship and for enjoying his work, great diligence and conscientiousness, a Rabelaisian wit. Above all we also see in Sir John Pilcher a serious commitment to building closer links between Britain and Japan, and ensuring that those charged with this responsibility in the UK understood why Japan mattered, what made it special and how the complex task of realising this objective could be taken forward. This volume is a fitting tribute to his work.

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