Two Island Nations

07 February 2018

History | Politics

As small islands playing on the international stage, historically Japan and Great Britain have been two nations with many shared qualities, but a turbulent relationship.

The files in Foreign Office Files for Japan, 1946-1952: Occupation of Japan, released this week, give a fascinating insight into Anglo-Japanese relations in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, a war that saw their alliance descend into a bitter and bloody conflict. The files reveal the after-effects with documents on war crime trials, the treatment of British prisoners of war and the poor state of Japan in 1946, as well as the reformation of the country by means of demilitarisation, the new constitution, land reform, the country’s first democratic election and the San Francisco Peace Treaty.

Once this treaty was signed in 1951, to come into force in 1952, the task of re-establishing diplomatic relations between the two countries became more pressing. This document, from the same year, was intended to help. Titled “Notes on the entertainment of Japanese, left by the departing Ambassador”, the opening lines read “I am sure that Mr Redman’s notes on how to entertain the Japanese will prove most useful to Foreign Service Offices in Japan. I have found his amusing and informative paper valuable also for the light it throws on the general problem of the Japanese Character.”

The report was written by Sir Vere Redman, Information Officer to the British Embassy, who, despite being promptly arrested by the Japanese in 1941 was, by accounts, at the forefront of efforts to rebuild relations once the war was over. It was circulated to all members of the British mission with representational responsibilities, and contains the following advice:

On language barriers:

“What we used to call, somewhat disrespectfully, “the fluent yappers” are not, however, always the most intelligent or influential people. On the other hand, those who are difficult to get on with, for linguistic and other reasons, are very often the most important to get on with. It is perhaps worth remembering that, in entertaining Japanese, the line of the least effort is all too often the line of the least effect.”

On post-war vs pre-war Japan:

“A word should be said here about ladies, a difficult subject in any context, a particularly difficult one in this. The only safe generalisation is that ladies are more important in post-war than they were in pre-war Japan.”

On national loyalty:

“I would say that, for the average Briton, it is not all that difficult to develop a relationship with Japanese friends based on reciprocal respect and considerable affection which, in broadly human terms, will be an enrichment for both without any risk of loss of cultural and national identity. What we have to ensure is that we never lose sign of our own thought pattern. A daily dose of Descartes should prove an adequate prophylactic.”

On entertaining:

“As to cocktail parties, I should say that the men like them about as much or as little, according to age, as we do. Since very few Japanese women drink intoxicating liquors, they are apt to find an hour’s erect amiability sustained only by fruit juice rather a strain.”

“I think too that they have largely got over their earlier dislike for cheese, although the stronger fermented varieties still prove something of a trial.”

“It is, of course, desirable that laughter should mellow our exchanges with our Japanese friend but there are obvious problems both of how and how much. The Japanese certainly like to laugh, but what will make them laugh is not always easy to determine. One general thought should certainly be kept in mind, that nothing is more universal than a hearty laugh and nothing more regional than a sneer.”

And finally:

“The teacher is the sea-bream of Japanese society.”

Humour aside, this document shows the pains being taken by British diplomats to establish strong relations with their Japanese counterparts to secure British interests in Japan and the Far East, and I am sure it was extremely welcome to those new to the country, for whom the prospect of entertaining in this post-war era may have been extremely daunting.

1946-1952: Occupation of Japan section II of Foreign Office Files for Japan, 1919-1952, is available now. For more information, including free trial access and price enquiries, please email us at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..
All images © The National Archives, Kew. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

About the Author

Rosie Perry

Rosie Perry

Since joining Adam Matthew in April 2014 I have worked on a variety of projects including Mass Observation Online and American History 1493-1945. Previous to this I completed a degree in Art History and particularly enjoy exploring and discovering the rich visual content of our resources.