Japan is one of those countries where you know we’ve fought them across South East Asia, but aren’t so aware we’ve actually been there in their own water and on their own soil. But we have.
After a brief flirtation in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century when English traders first visited Japan and a trading post was briefly established on the island of Hirado, the British and the Japanese largely left each other alone for the next couple of centuries or so, until Japan started opening up to the West in the mid-nineteenth century. But it was an uneasy opening-up, with misunderstandings and apprehension on both sides. In 1862, a party of Britons on the road through the village of Namamugi were deemed to have shown insufficient respect to the regent of the Satsuma region of Japan and his bodyguards. The subsequent assault on the British party led to the delightfully named Satsuma War. Tragically, this has nothing to do with small orange citrus fruit, and everything to do with large cannons on both sides.
Britain demanded reparations for the assault, but the Satsuma region refused. So after a year of fruitless (no joy, no citrus) negotiations, we sent a Royal Navy squadron to Kagoshima to put just the right amount of pressure on Satsuma (too much pressure and there would have been Satsuma juice everywhere). When the arrival of the squadron wasn’t sufficient to get our money, we decided to increase the pressure by seizing three Satsuma vessels in Kagoshima harbour. Ultimately, perhaps, this was a little too much pressure, because the Satsuma forts then somewhat surprised the British squadron by opening fire on it. Our boys retaliated and the end result was five killed on the Satsuma side and eleven killed on our side, but we caused a lot of damage to the town and the result was a British win on points, with Satsuma paying £25,000 compensation and entering into a treaty with us.
After a number of other hiccups, including the 1864 Bombardment of Shimonoseki by us, the French, the Americans and the Dutch, we eventually started to get along very well with the Japanese. In fact, by 1902 we were good buddies, happily signing the Anglo-Japanese alliance, and in the First World War the Japanese fought on our side (pinching a bit of German-held territory in China). By the Second World War that had all slightly changed.
I have touched elsewhere in this book on the titanic struggle between the British Empire and Allies on one side and the Japanese Empire on the other, and most of the action between Britons and Japanese took place a long, long way from Japan.
In the last few months of the Second World War in the East, however, we were preparing for a fighting invasion of Japan. As the tide of battle moved closer to the Japanese home islands, feverish planning started for Operation Downfall, the Allied invasion of Japan. It would have been on a scale that would have dwarfed D-Day and, though it was mainly a US operation, British forces were intending to make a major contribution with, for instance, British ground troops destined for Operation Coronet, the invasion of Honshu, and British naval forces planned to play a major role in Operation Olympic, the invasion of Kyushu. As we all know now, the nuclear bombing of Japan and the country’s surrender made the fighting invasion unnecessary.
So when British forces did finally march into Japan, it was as part of the British Commonwealth Occupation Force. This contained, among others, numerous Australians and the British 5th Infantry Brigade. BCOF’s role ended in 1952, but already by 1951 we were getting distracted by events elsewhere in the region, in this instance how our forces and their enemies were doing in the Korean Peninsula.