Satow’s real strength is as an observer and participant in the history of Japan at the time; his superb language skills allowing him to meet and befriend many of the key players in this restoration drama. This book actually downplays his own importance in persuading his diplomatic superiors to throw Great Britain’s covert support behind the pro-Imperial rebels, a diplomatic coup that left Satow’s homeland in the box seat once the Imperialists took power. Satow’s prose is smoothly functional, and in his sympathy for the dilemmas faced by the contemporary Japanese and his respect for the local culture Satow’s humanity is clearly evident. There are even glimpses of an ultra-dry sense of humour behind the Victorian facade.
The downsides of “A Diplomat in Japan” relate to the poor quality of the editions available. Mine is the 2000 ICG/Tuttle version, which is littered with typos, has tiny font, uses the outdated spellings of Japanese names and places that Satow used but that are tough on the modern reader (e.g. Kioto and Ozaka for Kyoto and Osaka). Even the cover, with its stern picture of the late middle-aged Satow from his much later second posting to Japan, rather than the young diplomat that actually experienced these events, is poorly done. The book is also too long for all but the dedicated historian: there is a gap in this admittedly small market for an abbreviated version aimed at the more general reader.
“A Diplomat in Japan” is not always the easiest of reads, but it remains obligatory for anyone with an interest in this period of history.