Sir Hugh Cortazzi – Robert Morton

When I heard of Hugh’s death, I was disbelieving, not having imagined that this seemingly unstoppable man would so suddenly be taken from us.  ‘Irreplaceable’ is an over-used word when we lose somebody unique, but I can think of nobody else that can now fill the role that he played.  I hope it is a comfort to his family that he lived his life so fully and could keep going right to the end.  How many people manage to fit as much into one lifetime as he did?

He was tremendously helpful to me when I was writing my book A. B. Mitford and the Birth of Japan as a Modern State.  He it was who found the letters Mitford had sent his father from Japan which were essential for the work – he reproduced parts of them in his book Mitford’s Japan.  He did not keep them to himself, but deposited them in the Lisa Sainsbury Library and the Japan Society, so that other scholars could use them.  He carefully read my manuscript and generously gave me expert advice, saving me from more than a few embarrassments.  Here is one of his pithy, but invaluable, explanations: ‘The FO and the Diplomatic Service in the nineteenth century were not synonymous.  A few FO clerks did go to diplomatic posts, but they did not as far as I am aware have any obligation to serve overseas and a member of the diplomatic service had to have private means (as is apparent from Mitford’s account).’  This is the kind of comment that stops people like me going off the rails.

He was not himself a particularly fluent writer I think; his gift was the ability to gather, edit and disseminate primary source material that would significantly help other researchers.  He was, essentially, a writer for other writers.  I have turned again and again to his Dr. Willis in Japan, which contains excerpts of letters William Willis sent home in the 1860s and 1870s.  He also produced some valuable volumes covering more recent history.  I particularly like his The Growing Power of Japan, 1967-1972, the highlight of which is the idiosyncratic reports by Sir John Pilcher, the ambassador at the time, a man whom he clearly liked, but could hardly have been more different to.  I also greatly enjoyed Carmen Blacker – Scholar of Japanese Religion, Myth and Folklore: Writings and Reflections which is such a sensitive and illuminating (as well as, in places, very funny) tribute to a remarkable person.

I’m tempted to compare Hugh to Harry Parkes who served as British Minister (the equivalent of Ambassador) to Japan from 1865 to 1883.  Neither man had the kind of background usual for this position – they are both among the few British ministers/ambassadors to Japan who were not educated at either Oxford or Cambridge (I think Ernest Satow and Esler Dening are the only others), and both reached the top through ability and grit.  Parkes was, I think, fierier and more temperamental than Hugh, although I imagine that if Hugh felt his subordinates had not tried their best, he could have been pretty scary.  (Rightly so; what Margaret Thatcher said about prime ministers, that they should be intimidating, is surely true of ambassadors: ‘There’s not much point in being a weak floppy thing in the chair, is there?’).  Hugh wrote of himself that he sometimes wondered how someone ‘so different from the … suave and urbane diplomat … managed to be appointed to … Ambassador at Tokyo’.

Another way in which Hugh was very similar to Parkes was in his energetic support of scholarship about Japan; both served as president of the Asiatic Society of Japan while in post, although Hugh was a great deal more knowledgeable about and sympathetic to Japan than Parkes.  They were careful, determined and tenacious.  Both presented clear, unadorned information to the Foreign Office (not for them the colourful flights of fancy of Pilcher).  Probably nobody in their different eras would have stood up for British interests more doggedly than these two men.

After Parkes died, he got a statue on the Bund in Shanghai (unfortunately melted down for its bronze by the Japanese in 1943), and a memorial in the crypt of St. Paul’s Cathedral (which is still there).  We cannot hope for anything like this for Hugh and instead we have to rely on the ephemeral digital world to memorialise him.  But if such a thing were possible, much of the tribute to Parkes at St. Paul’s could be written under Hugh’s bust, particularly the old-fashioned ‘devotion to duty and singleness of purpose’.


Robert Morton
Professor, Chuo University, Tokyo

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