“Aboard the Dingyuan, the wounded, half-blind William Tyler stumbled through the carnage. His ears were still ringing from the blast, and would continue to do so for the rest of his life. Up ahead, he saw a friend of his, Lieutenant Wu. Even as they exchanged greetings, a man standing nearby was torn apart by an enemy shell, smearing gore and entrails across the deck.

“‘So this is civilisation,’ said Wu. ‘This is what you foreigners are so keen to teach us.’”

From Admiral Togo: Nelson of the East, by Jonathan Clements.

Admiral Togo: Nelson of the East

At long last, available on the Kindle, my biography of Admiral Togo, from Amazon in the UK and Amazon in the US.

“ … a fine attempt to revive the memory and reputation of a most professional and successful naval officer who lived through a period of astonishingly rapid and radical change for his country and service.   Recommended for the general reader, but especially for those who may find themselves working with the Japanese.” – Naval Review

“Clements… recounts the life of a Japanese admiral famous for his victory at the Battle of Tsushima during the Russo-Japanese War. Through his extensive reading of multiple-language sources, Clements points out deficiencies in some of the… sources he quotes, and presents so far little-known episodes like the important roles French advisers played in the Battle of Miyako Bay in 1869 during Japan’s civil war in the early Meiji period.” – CHOICE

“This book is a refreshing account of a defining figure of modern Japan. It is well written and deals with themes such as leadership, individual commitment, social transformation and cross-cultural understanding of great contemporary relevance.” – Mariner’s Mirror

Another Manchuria

I have to spend a lot of money on Amazon Japan – sometimes I remember to write down my better discoveries, so that other researchers don’t have to take pot luck with cripplingly expensive postage.

For the last five years or so, I have been eschewing English-language guidebooks and relying on Japanese ones, not only in Japan, but also in parts of China. My favourite are the beautifully comprehensive Rurubu magazine-format tourist guides, that have helped me navigate the wilds of Amakusa and Hokkaido, Shanghai and Taiwan. But sometimes, you need something a little more specialised…

Manchuria Off the Tourist Track, by Keiji Kobayashi is a marvellous idea – a travel guide to Manchuria that highlights the region’s past as a Japanese puppet state. Kobayashi mooches about the modern-day Chinese provinces of Heilongjiang and Jilin, poking around odd monuments, and old buildings that are leftovers from the days when Manchuria was Japan’s own little exercise in imperialist expansion. This is where Mannerheim led a cavalry charge through the city centre of Mukden, against Japanese gunners, although Kobayashi also has time for the obscurer historical individuals, such as the grave of Verda Majo (1912-1947), the Japanese revolutionary who wrote books in Esperanto arguing for the freedom of China.

Some relics are long gone. The Japanese who remained behind have largely faded into the local population, and three generations of Chinese history have added their own artefacts. Shenyang train station is still there, but the nearby memorial to the fallen of the Russo-Japanese War has now been replaced by one of the ubiquitous statues of Chairman Mao. Kobayashi, ably aided by his photographer Ribun Fukui, chronicles the ghosts of Manchuria’s Japanese past, including the brutalist monuments to Japanese aggression, and carefully preserved sites of Japanese atrocities, some of the skeletons left in piles where they were found.

Manchuria is such a fascinating place, and includes the former capital of the Manchu dynastic founder Nurhachi; the great monumental tower built by General Nogi and Admiral Togo to honour their fallen men; Harbin, a Russian city on Chinese territory. They even dig up the old Man’ei Studios, once the largest film studio in Asia, that cranked out films in Japanese for the local population, now largely forgotten in film archives. Once the “cockpit of Asia”, Manchuria is now far off the tourist trail, but seems like one of the most exciting places for anyone in search of a glimpse of yesterday’s tomorrow. It is a sci-fi future that failed, and all the more interesting for it.

Hello, Sailors

The Mariner’s Mirror, or to give it its fantastic full title, The Mariner’s Mirror, wherein may be discovered his art, craft & mystery after the manner of their use in all ages and all Nations, has just published a glowing review of my Admiral Togo: Nelson of the East. Alessio Patalano, lecturer in War Studies at King’s College London and a specialist in East Asian security issues, really gets the book, noting its concentration on “the multiple applications of naval power, from diplomatic to constabulary and military functions.” This is particularly important in the case of Togo, as there was considerably more to his life than his sudden appearance in 1905 as the hero of the battle of Tsushima. He’d first encountered the British as a teenage samurai, and watched swordsmen standing knee-deep in water on the shores of Kagoshima, angrily brandishing their blades at “retreating” Royal Navy vessels. He’d studied for several years in Victorian England, and been part of dockside politics and naval espionage in China, Korea, and Hawaii before he saw military action against China and Russia. Patalano thinks, rightly, that I have romanticised Togo, but also notes: “This book is a refreshing account of a defining figure of modern Japan. It is well written and deals with themes such as leadership, individual commitment, social transformation and cross-cultural understanding of great contemporary relevance.”

French Made

My publishers have alerted me to an even-handed and largely complimentary review of my Admiral Togo book in the May 2011 issue of Choice, a magazine for academic libraries. Masahiro Yamamoto of the University of Wyoming pronounces it “fun reading”, and says: “Clements… recounts the life of a Japanese admiral famous for his victory at the Battle of Tsushima during the Russo-Japanese War. Through his extensive reading of multiple-language sources, Clements points out deficiencies in some of the… sources he quotes, and presents so far little-known episodes like the important roles French advisers played in the Battle of Miyako Bay in 1869 during Japan’s civil war in the early Meiji period.”

Maybe I should write more about those Frenchmen. I have been meaning to translate Eugene Collache’s “Une Aventure au Japon” for some time now. I might do that when I get a moment, as I have been thinking about making it the basis of a book about the Republic of Ezo and the involvement of foreigners in Japan’s civil war. A noren curtain, bearing the image of Goryokaku, the five-pointed star-shaped fortress in Hakodate, serves as a constant reminder to me over my office door. One the many book projects that are simmering while I work on others, but I’ll get there in the end.

Foundation and Empire

Lovely evening yesterday at the Japan Foundation for the book launch of Admiral Togo: Nelson of the East, where I discussed Togo’s odd relationship with the British, from his teen years when he stood in samurai armour, wielding a sword and facing up to a warship, through his student days in Kent aboard the training ship Worcester, up to his run-ins with British vessels on the China Seas. Most notoriously, his sinking of the British registered transport Kowshing in 1894, which was captained by a fellow graduate of the Worcester and was hotly debated in the letters page of the Times for many months.

Everybody had a good time and there were lots of laughs at the expense of British MPs, confusions in signal flags, and the misfortunes of the Russian Baltic Fleet. It’s been 99 years since Togo was feted by the British on his triumphant world tour of 1911, and it was nice that he got to be celebrated again.

Thanks to everyone who came along.

Togo at the Movies (1923)

From Admiral Togo: Nelson of the East, by Jonathan Clements. Available now in the UK and soon in the US.


Togo the former samurai was brought face to face with a development of the new age – the motion picture. La Bataille (in America, Danger Line) directed by E.E. Violet, was the international star-studded epic of its day, the tale of the Japanese Marquis Yorisaka (Hayakawa Sessue) who suspects his wife of having an affair with the English captain Fergan (Felix Ford). The vengeful Yorisaka has Fergan transferred to his ship, and when wounded in action, orders the neutral Englishman to take charge of the ship. The film was an unabashed weepy, a refashioning of Othello, in which the wounded Marquis later discovers that his wife had been faithful to him, and seeks a tearful reconciliation. However, when screened to an audience of Japanese dignitaries by the well-meaning Viscount Ogasawara, the film’s scenes of naval combat had an unexpected effect on Admiral Togo. The sobbing Togo bolted from the theatre, confessing afterwards to Ogasawara: ‘Many of the men around me died in just that way. Do you think I can keep myself from weeping when I see the sight? It does not matter if it is a movie picture.’


And for readers in the London area there’s still time to book yourselves a place at my free lecture on Wednesday at the Japan Foundation, Johnny Chinaman: Admiral Togo and the British. I guarantee at least one joke at the expense of Essex.

Togo in America (1911)


From Admiral Togo: Nelson of the East, by Jonathan Clements. Out on the Kindle now in the UK and in the US.


The Americans were even more overwhelming in their reaction, leaving Togo taken aback at their enthusiasm and their energy. The pushy welcome began on the night that the Lusitania docked, when Togo found a midnight reception committee determined to whisk him onto land before dawn. Soon after, he faced a gesticulating, yelling wall of journalists and photographers, from whom his American minders selected a lucky foursome to take his picture. Togo stood to attention and stared grumpily into the cameras, only to discover that the paparazzi wanted him in a multiplicity of poses and aspects. He seemed particularly galled by the constant strobing of camera flashes. One single image, it seemed was not enough, and Togo suffered an excruciating fifteen minutes of man-handling and exhortations, until Chandler Hale, the Third Assistant Secretary of State, came to his rescue.

‘I have been beaten by the zeal of those cameramen,’ quipped Togo. ‘It is rather easier to fight the world squadrons than meeting those men.’

Faced with his customary silence, the American press filled in the blanks for themselves, with ruminations on the loneliness of command in the mysterious East, or patronising conjecture about what Togo might have said, had he been in a position to utter more than a few phrases. He was taken on a train to Washington, by a welcoming committee that plainly assumed he had never seen a train before, and whose excited fishing for compliments on American railways he found rudely obtuse.

The New York World concentrated on Togo’s encounter with local telephone exchange workers, whose place of work he visited on his way to the railway station. Dismissed as ‘Hello Girls’ in the early 20th century, switchboard operators were subject of contemporary gossip – a woman on the other end of a phone line, ready, in a certain sense, to do one’s bidding, and hence something of an erotic frisson. They were also habitually condescended to as bimbos, hence the World’s scoffing at the New York switchboard operators’ failure to remember to greet Togo with the correct cheer, which, the reporter assured his readers, was Banzai: ‘Ten Thousand Years’.

Other American crowds were soon educated by their press as to the expected form of address, and Togo was greeted with wild cries of Banzai everywhere he went. This verbal assault did not even escape him when riding in a government limousine, since on one occasion he found himself in an impromptu race with a car full of hysterical (and possibly drunken) flappers, who yelled Banzai at him and waved their handkerchiefs while the Admiral looked on in surprised amusement. At no point did Togo risk shaming his hosts by pointing out the unwelcome truth, which was that Banzai at the time was a military salute more appropriate to the gruff, tough army, whereas the more cultured Navy tended to salute with calls of Hoga: ‘Respectful Congratulations’.

The attention was clearly getting to Togo, as was the press’s constant demand that he say something, no matter how ill-informed or unfelt.

‘I have been frequently asked what I thought of America,’ he said with a rare scolding tone. ‘But isn’t it asking me too much? I have landed here only this morning, and I have nothing to tell.”

Johnny Chinaman: Admiral Togo and the British

Free lecture at the Japan Foundation, Russell Square House, 10-12 Russell Square, London

7th July 2010, from 6.30pm

Launching his new biography with an illustrated talk, author Jonathan Clements will examine the turbulent relationship between a Japanese war hero and the people of Britain. Feted as the ‘Nelson of the East’ after his victory over the Russian fleet in the battle of Tsushima, Admiral T?g? Heihachir? (1848-1934) returned in triumph to the UK, where he had studied as a youth at a Kent maritime college.

The young T?g?’s English schoolmates had taunted him with the nickname Johnny Chinaman. He later lived in Greenwich, and worked in an Isle of Dogs shipyard on the next generation of Japanese warships. He also stayed with a family in Cambridge, where he was once mistaken for a juggler. Returning to the Far East, he became infamous in the letters page of the Times, when he controversially sank a British-registered transport. All this, however, was forgotten when he sank the Tsar’s navy at Tsushima 1905: the high point of the Anglo-Japanese Alliance, followed by his celebrated world tour, which brought him back to the UK 99 years ago this month.

This event is free to attend but booking is essential. To reserve a place, please e-mail your name to eliza (at)

Togo to Go

Haus Publishing have put the first thirty pages of my biography of Admiral Togo online for free. Check it out!

Togo Heihachiro (1848-1934) was born into a feudal society that had lived in seclusion for 250 years. As a teenage samurai, he witnessed the destruction wrought upon his native land by British warships. As the legendary ‘Silent Admiral’, he was at the forefront of innovations in warfare, pioneering the Japanese use of modern gunnery and wireless communication. He is best known as ‘the Nelson of the East’ for his resounding victory over the Tsar’s navy in the Russo-Japanese War, but he also lived a remarkable life – studying at a British maritime college, witnessing the Sino-French War, the Hawaiian Revolution, and the Boxer Uprising. After his retirement, he was appointed to oversee the education of the Emperor, Hirohito. This new biography spans Japan’s sudden, violent leap out of its self-imposed isolation and into the 20th century. Delving beyond Togo’s finest hour at the Battle of Tsushima, it portrays the life of a diffident Japanese sailor in Victorian Britain, his reluctant celebrity in America (where he was laid low by Boston cooking and welcomed by his biggest fan, Theodore Roosevelt) forgotten wars over the short-lived republics of Ezo and Formosa, and the accumulation of peacetime experience that forged a wartime hero.

About the Author

Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of the Samurai, and biographies of many prominent figures in Asian history, including Coxinga, Prince Saionji and the First Emperor of China.