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Sir Ernest Mason Satow PC, GCMG, (30 June 1843 - 26 August 1929), known in Japan as " " (Ānesuto Satō), known in China as (traditional Chinese) "薩道義" or (simplified Chinese) "萨道义", was a Britishmarker scholar, diplomat and Japanologist born to an ethnically German father (Hans David Christoph Satow, born in Wismarmarker, then under Swedishmarker rule, naturalised British in 1846) and an English mother (Margaret, née Mason) in Claptonmarker, North Londonmarker. He was educated at Mill Hill Schoolmarker and University College Londonmarker (UCL).

Satow was an exceptional linguist, an energetic traveller, a writer of travel guidebooks, a dictionary compiler, a keen botanist (chiefly with F.V. Dickins) and a major collector of Japanese books and manuscripts on all kinds of subjects before the Japanese themselves began to do so. He also loved classical music and the works of Dante on which his brother-in-law Henry Fanshawe Tozer was an authority. Satow kept a diary for most of his adult life which amounts to 47 mostly handwritten volumes.


Satow is better known in Japan than in Britain or the other countries in which he served. He was a key figure in East Asia and Anglo-Japanese relations, particularly in Bakumatsu (1853-1867) and Meiji Era (1868-1912) Japanmarker, and in Chinamarker after the Boxer Rebellion, 1900-06. He also served in Siammarker, Uruguaymarker and Moroccomarker, and represented Britain at the Second Hague Peace Conference in 1907. In his retirement he wrote A Guide to Diplomatic Practice, now known as 'Satow's Guide to Diplomatic Practice' - this manual is widely used today, and has been updated several times by distinguished diplomats, notably Lord Gore-Booth. The sixth edition edited by Sir Ivor Roberts was published by Oxford University Press in 2009, and is over 700 pages long.

Satow's diplomatic career

Japan (1862-1883)

Ernest Satow is probably best known as the author of the book A Diplomat in Japan (based mainly on his diaries) which describes the years 1862-1869 when Japan was changing from rule by the Tokugawa shogunate to the restoration of Imperial rule. He was recruited by the Foreign Office straight out of university in London. Within a week of his arrival by way of China as a young student interpreter in the British Japan Consular Service, at age 19, the Namamugi Incident (Namamugi Jiken), in which a British merchant was killed on the Tōkaidō, took place on September 14 1862. Satow was on board one of the British ships which sailed to Kagoshima in August 1863 to obtain the compensation demanded from the Satsuma clan's daimyo, Shimazu Hisamitsu, for the slaying of Charles Lennox Richardson. They were fired on by the Satsuma shore batteries and retaliated, an action that became known in Britain as the Bombardment of Kagoshima.

In 1864, Satow was with the allied force (Britain, Francemarker, the Netherlandsmarker and the United Statesmarker) which attacked Shimonoseki to enforce the right of passage of foreign ships through the narrow Kanmon Straitmarker between Honshū and Kyūshū. Satow met Ito Hirobumi and Inoue Kaoru of Chōshū for the first time just before the bombardment of Shimonoseki. He also had links with many other Japanese leaders, including Saigō Takamori of Satsuma (who became a friend), and toured the hinterland of Japan with A.B. Mitford and the cartoonist and illustrator Charles Wirgman.

Satow's rise in the consular service was due at first to his competence and zeal as an interpreter at a time when English was virtually unknown in Japan and the Japanese government still communicated with the West in Dutch. His Japanese language skills quickly became indispensable in the British Minister Sir Harry Parkes's negotiations with the failing Tokugawa shogunate and the powerful Satsuma and Chōshū clans, and the gathering of intelligence. He was promoted to full Interpreter and then Japanese Secretary to the Britishmarker legation, and, as early as 1864, he started to write translations and newspaper articles on subjects relating to Japan. In 1869, he went home to England on leave, returning to Japan in 1870.

Satow was one of the founding members at Yokohama, in 1872, of the Asiatic Society of Japan whose purpose was to study the Japanese culture, history and language (i.e. Japanology) in detail. He lectured to the Society on several occasions in the 1870s, and the Transactions of the Asiatic Society contain several of his published papers. The Society is still thriving today.

Siam, Uruguay, Morocco (1884-1895)

Satow served in Siammarker (1884-1887), during which time he was accorded the rare honour of promotion from the Consular to the Diplomatic service, Uruguaymarker (1889-93) and Moroccomarker (1893-95). (Such promotion was extraordinary because the British Consular and Diplomatic services were segregated until the mid-20th century, and Satow did not come from the aristocratic class to which the Diplomatic Service was restricted.)

Japan (1895-1900)

Sir Ernest Satow, G.C.M.G
Satow returned to Japan as Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary on July 28 1895, and stayed in Tokyo for five years (though he was on leave in London for Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee in 1897 and met her in August at Osborne House, Isle of Wight). On April 17 1895 the Treaty of Shimonoseki (text here) had been signed, and Satow was able to observe at first hand the steady build-up of the Japanese army and navy to avenge the humiliation by Russia, Germany and France in the Triple Intervention of April 23 1895. He was also in a position to oversee the transition to the ending of extraterritoriality in Japan which finally ended in 1899, as agreed by the Anglo-Japanese Treaty of Commerce and Navigation signed in London on July 16 1894.

Satow was unlucky not to be named the first British Ambassador to Japan, an honour which was bestowed on his successor Sir Claude Maxwell Macdonald in 1905.

China (1900-06)

Satow served as the British High Commissioner (September 1900 - January 1902) and then Minister in Peking from 1900-1906. He was active as plenipotentiary in the negotiations to conclude the Boxer Protocol which settled the compensation claims of the Powers after the Boxer Rebellion, and he signed the protocol for Britain on September 7, 1901. Satow also observed the defeat of Russiamarker in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905) from his Peking post.

Retirement (1906-29)

In 1906 Satow was made a Privy Councillor and is listed on the Historic list of members of the Privy Council. In 1907 he was Britain's second plenipotentiary at the Second Hague Peace Conference.

In retirement (1906-1929) at Ottery St Marymarker in Devon, England, he wrote mainly on subjects connected with diplomacy and international law. In Britain, he is less well known than in Japan, where he is recognised as perhaps the most important foreign observer in the Bakumatsu and Meiji periods. He gave the Rede lecture at Cambridge University in 1908 on the career of Count Joseph Alexander Hübner. It was titled An Austrian Diplomat in the Fifties. Satow chose this subject with discretion to avoid censure from the British Foreign Office for discussing his own career.

As the years passed, Satow's understanding and appreciation of the Japanese evolved and deepened. For example, one of his diary entries from the early 1860s asserts that the submissive character of the Japanese will make it easy for foreigners to govern them after the "samurai problem" could be resolved; but in retirement, he wrote: "... looking back now in 1919, it seems perfectly ludicrous that such a notion should have been entertained, even as a joke, for a single moment, by anyone who understood the Japanese spirit."

Satow's extensive diaries and letters (the Satow Papers, PRO 30/33 1-23) are kept at the Public Record Officemarker at Kew, West London in accordance with his last will and testament. Many of his rare Japanese books are now part of the Oriental collection of Cambridge University Librarymarker.

Origin and Pronunciation of 'Satow'

In his Family Chronicle (see below), Satow stated that the family name was Sorbian (Wendish) in origin. It means 'village of the sower'. The 'a' in Satow is thus - strictly speaking- a long 'a' (as in "father").

It is probable that Japanese friends or language teachers encouraged Satow to use kanji characters for his name in the 1860s, as is quite common among foreigners resident in Japan even today. This would have ensured the short 'a' pronunciation, there being no native words with a long 'a' in Japanese. The two obvious combinations were 薩道 and 佐藤, both read 'Satoh' with a short 'a'. Of these the former uses the 薩 (Sa) of Satsuma, and Satow himself may have preferred this one, as the Satsuma han was allied with Britain after 1865.


The Japanese wife of Ernest Mason Satow, Takeda Kane.
1870 photograph.
Satow was never able, as a diplomat serving in Japan, to marry his Japanese common-law wife, Takeda Kane, by whom he had two sons, Eitaro and Hisayoshi. The Takeda family letters, including many from Satow to and from his family, have been deposited at the Yokohama Archives of History (formerly the British consulate in Yokohama) at the request of Satow's granddaughters.

Satow's second son, Takeda Hisayoshi, became a noted botanist and founder of the Japan Alpine Club. He studied at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kewmarker and at Birmingham Universitymarker. A memorial hall to him is in the Oze marshlands in Hinoematamarker, Fukushima prefecturemarker.

Select bibliography

Some books and articles published by Satow

  • A Guide to Diplomatic Practice by Sir E. Satow, (Longmans, Green & Co. London & New York, 1917). A standard reference work used in many embassies across the world (though not British ones!). Now in its sixth edition (2009, ISBN 978-0-19-9559275).

  • A Diplomat in Japan by Sir E. Satow, first published by Seeley, Service & Co., London, 1921, reprinted in paperback by Tuttle, 2002. (Page numbers are slightly different in the two editions.) ISBN 4-925080-28-8

  • The Voyage of John Saris, ed. by Sir E. M. Satow (Hakluyt Society, 1900) mentioned on the William Adams page.

  • The Family Chronicle of the English Satows, by Ernest Satow, privately printed, Oxford 1925.

  • 'British Policy', a series of three untitled articles written by Satow (anonymously) in the Japan Times (ed. Charles Rickerby), dated March 16, May 4(? date uncertain) and May 19 1866 which apparently influenced many Japanese once it was translated and widely distributed under the title 'Eikoku sakuron' (British policy), and probably helped to hasten the Meiji Restoration of 1868. Satow pointed out that the British and other treaties with foreign countries had been made by the Shogun on behalf of Japan, but that the Emperor's existence had not even been mentioned, thus calling into question their validity. Satow accused the Shogun of fraud, and demanded to know who was the 'real head' of Japan and further a revision of the treaties to reflect the political reality. He later admitted in A Diplomat in Japan (p.155 of the Tuttle reprint edition, p.159 of the first edition) that writing the articles had been 'altogether contrary to the rules of the service' (i.e. it is inappropriate for a diplomat or consular agent to interfere in the politics of a country in which he/she is serving). [The first and third articles are reproduced on pp. 566-75 of Grace Fox, Britain and Japan 1858-1883, Oxford: Clarendon Press 1969, but the second one has only been located in the Japanese translation. A retranslation from the Japanese back into English has been attempted in I. Ruxton, Bulletin of the Kyūshū Institute of Technology (Humanities, Social Sciences), No. 45, March 1997, pp. 33-41]

Books and articles based on the Satow Papers

  • The Diaries and Letters of Sir Ernest Mason Satow (1843-1929), a Scholar-Diplomat in East Asia, edited by Ian C. Ruxton, Edwin Mellen Press, 1998 ISBN 0-7734-8248-2. ( Translated into Japanese ISBN 4-8419-0316-X )

  • The Diaries of Sir Ernest Satow, British Minister in Tokyo (1895-1900): A Diplomat Returns to Japan edited by Ian Ruxton, Edition Synapse, 2003 ISBN 4-901481-06-1

  • The Correspondence of Sir Ernest Satow, British Minister in Japan (1895-1900), Volume One, from the Satow Papers held at The National Archives, Kew, London. published in full for researchers with notes by Ian Ruxton, Kyūshū Institute of Technology, Lulu Press Inc., July 2005. ISBN 1-4116-3857-3

  • The Diaries of Sir Ernest Satow, British Envoy in Peking (1900-06) edited by Ian Ruxton in two volumes, Lulu Press Inc., April 2006 ISBN 978-1-4116-8804-9 (Volume One); ISBN 978-1-4116-8805-6 (Volume Two)

  • The Semi-Official Letters of British Envoy Sir Ernest Satow from Japan and China (1895-1906) edited by Ian Ruxton, Lulu Press, 2007. ISBN 978-1-4303-1502-5

  • Korea and Manchuria between Russia and Japan 1895-1904 : the observations of Sir Ernest Satow, British Minister Plenipotentiary to Japan (1895-1900) and China (1900-1906), Selected and edited with a historical introduction, by George Alexander Lensen. -- Sophia University in cooperation with Diplomatic Press, 1966 [No ISBN]

  • A Diplomat in Siam by Ernest Satow C.M.G., Introduced and edited by Nigel Brailey (Orchid Press, Bangkok, reprinted 2002) ISBN 974-8304-73-6

  • The Satow Siam Papers: The Private Diaries and Correspondence of Ernest Satow, edited by Nigel Brailey (Volume 1, 1884-85), Bangkok: The Historical Society, 1997

  • The Rt. Hon. Sir Ernest Mason Satow G.C.M.G.: A Memoir, by Bernard M. Allen (1933)


  • Early Japanese books in Cambridge University Library : a catalogue of the Aston, Satow, and von Siebold collections, Nozomu Hayashi & Peter Kornicki -- Cambridge University Press, 1991. -- (University of Cambridge Oriental publications ; 40) ISBN 0-521-36496-5

  • Cullen, L.M. (2003). A History of Japan, 1582-1941: Internal and External Worlds. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-82115-X (cloth) ISBN 0-521-529918-2 (paper)


  1. Sample1 at
  2. Cullen, L.M. (2003). A History of Japan, 1582-1941. p. 188.

See also

People who knew Satow

External links

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