Today (Jan. 30) at 1 p.m. Tokyo time Ambassador Sir Stephen Gomersall and Welsh-turned-Japanese Green activist C.W. Nichol, surrounded by dignitaries and schoolchildren from all over Japan will plant an English oak in the grounds of the immense British Embassy opposite Emperor Akihito’s palace in Tokyo to commemorate the signing of the 1902 Anglo-Japanese alliance, perhaps the most fondly remembered treaty of the 20th century. In Japan, that is. Few in Britain recall the alliance and those who do may well think it wasn’t such a good idea, even at the time. “We cannot pretend that the past did not exist. We cannot pretend that relations between our two peoples have always been peaceful and friendly,” said the Queen, with unusual bluntness, welcoming Emperor Hirohito in 1971. “Nasty Nip in the Air” jeered Private Eye, adding “Piss Off, Bandyknees!” in case anyone missed the pun. Students turned their backs as Hirohito drove through London, and former POWs called for a boycott of Japanese products. They had in mind Japan’s attacks on Hong Kong and Singapore, the loss of Repulse and Prince of Wales, the sufferings of POW’s building the Burma Railway, and the continuing claims of surviving prisoners for some long-denied compensation.
Japanese have no such bitter memories of their oldest ally. Today, 178 Japanese cities, schools, and sporting associations have applied for English oak saplings sent from a nursery in Somerset to conduct their own memorial plantings. My wife Jenny, who is English, has been asked by our local fire brigade chief who doubles as football coach to officiate at such a planting, an invitation that, in view of the many house fires in Japan, she plans to accept. Japanese have always (despite the unpleasantness mentioned by Her Majesty) thought well of the U.K., and the admiration was once mutual. “Your Jap is a plucky little chap,” Rudyard Kipling wrote in 1898. “Under British officers they would make the finest troops east of Suez.” Conversely, many Japanese have an outdated view of the British as calm, polite, reserved, royalist tea-drinkers, rather like themselves; and the idea of a small offshore island ruling the world, as still seemed the case in 1902, offered an interesting role-model. The real cement in the relationship was mutual suspicion of Russia. The British feared that the Czars, as well as sneaking into India via Afghanistan, were planning naval expansion into the Pacific. For their part the Japanese faced the dilemma of all ambitious islanders vulnerable to blockade—either to stay on side with the world’s leading naval power, or attempt to rule the waves themselves.
In those far-off days Britain had the know-how. Heihachiro Togo, future admiral and subsequently Shinto god (His shrine is a favourite venue for fashionable Tokyo weddings) learnt his trade at the Osborne naval college on the Isle of Wight. Cammel Laird of Birkenhead built HIJM Mikasa, then the heaviest-gunned battleship afloat, for the fledgling Imperial Japanese Navy. In July 1905, Togo, in Mikasa under the eye of Royal Navy advisers, destroyed the Russian Baltic fleet in the Tsushima Strait. Japan gained Korea, a foothold in Manchuria, the first step to an empire in China, and eventually a causus belli for Pearl Harbour, Hong Kong, and Singapore. Britain, it has to be said, got less from the treaty, which ran until 1921. Japanese warships convoyed Australians to Gallipoli but contributed none of their own plucky little troops. A Japanese naval flotilla promised for the Mediterranean theatre did not arrive until 1920. Japan did seize German colonies in the Pacific and invade the Soviet Far East, from which the new Red Army could not persuade them to leave until 1923. Japan’s next ally, Nazi Germany, did no better. Busy invading South-East Asia, Japan failed to make war on the Soviets despite Hitler’s desperate pleas, enabling Stalin to throw fresh Siberian divisions into the battle for Stalingrad and thus, eventually, to cook the Führer’s goose.
Since 1951, Japan has had a new ally, the United States, once again the world’s dominant naval power. Like the first two, the third alliance was also based on Japan’s geographical position threatening Russia’s Far East, although it is now unclear what, apart from military inertia, it is for, since the Soviets went the way of the Third Reich. The 50th anniversary of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty passed off last year with modest celebration, no tree-planting, and renewed protests against US bases in Okinawa, which have been there since the US seized them after heavy fighting in 1945, and still take a fifth of the island’s scarce farmland. Japan has sent a small naval support group to the US-led war on terrorists, its first appearance in a combat zone since 1945, but as the Taliban has neither navy nor air force, this cannot be considered a high-risk operation. And, while no trees mark Japan’s third alliance in its history, they are probably unnecessary. Colonel Sanders in effigy watches thousands of Japanese street corners, and MacDonald’s golden arches are seldom out of a motorist’s sight. Conversely, Japanese-owned factories dot the USA. The new English oaks, assuming they flourish, will not be quite as prominent. Still, with a quarter-million British jobs dependent one way or another on Japanese investment, they can do no harm, and there are no British-owned factories (or American for that matter) in Japan to keep the respective flags flying. At least British ambassadors are no longer asked to lecture on the “British sickness”, and what, in this age of alloys and plastics, could better recall an old alliance than a thick, slow-growing, reliable, low-tech oak?