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The Impact of the Telegraph on Anglo-Japanese Diplomacy during the Nineteenth Century

Author(s): Jack Nicholls

Journal: New Voices : A Journal for Emerging Scholars of Japanese Studies in Australia and New Zealand
ISSN 1833-5233

Volume: 3;
Start page: 1;
Date: 2009;
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Keywords: Britain | diplomacy | telegraph | isolation | technological Determinism

In our age of high-speed communication, it is easy to underestimate how vast the distance between Britain and Japan really is. At a time when it took over four months for letters to cross from Japan to Britain and back, the first British diplomats posted there were almost completely isolated by their remoteness. The British Ministers to Japan were thus forced to rely on their own judgement in carrying out their allotted task of nurturing British commerce, with occasionally disastrous consequences. This isolation was ended at a stroke in 1870, when Japan was connected to the globe-spanning telegraph network, and the British could send messages via the wire between London and Tokyo in a matter of hours rather than months.This article explores the degree to which the everyday business of a British envoy in Japan was actually changed by the introduction of the telegraph, and asks whether the availability of a technology is enough, in itself, to change society. To answer this question, I look at the careers of the three most distinguished nineteenth-century British diplomats in Japan: Sir Rutherford Alcock (1859–1864), Sir Harry Parkes (1865–1883) and Sir Ernest Mason Satow (1895–1900).

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