For many Brits embarking on a life in Japan, arriving in the country creates a distance from family back in the UK, even in this era of digital connectivity. But for Kate Fahie, account director at brand activation agency Geometry Global, moving to Tokyo has seen her draw closer to a side of her family in a way that previously she never would have imagined.
That’s because Fahie’s great, great grandfather is Sir Claude MacDonald, the first British ambassador to Japan. Based in Tokyo from 1900 to 1912 with his wife Lady Ethel, Sir Claude was in his post throughout a particularly warm period in UK–Japan relations. And his presence can still be felt today at the ambassador’s residence.
After being put in touch with Sarah Madden, the wife of current British Ambassador to Japan Paul Madden CMG, Fahie was able to visit the embassy and see some of the traces her relative had left. That is her latest step in researching her ancestor and her family’s connection to Tokyo since she moved to the city last year.
Then, at a welcome reception hosted by The Japan–British Society for Ambassador Madden in March, Sarah happened to mention to BCCJ ACUMEN Publisher Simon Farrell the intriguing tale of Sir Claude and his modern-day descendent, which led to this story being featured.
Fahie had some awareness of who her great, great grandfather was, not least because of the array of magnificent paintings and ornaments he had collected in Asia, which have been passed down through the family.
“I knew about him being here, I knew that he was a diplomat, I knew that he had been a part of the Japan–British Alliance at a very important time in Japanese history”, said Fahie.
“I knew about his time in Beijing, probably more than I knew about Japan, because it’s obviously easier to tell children that your ancestor was part of a film—55 Days at Peking was one of the regulars in the house, but obviously there’s a certain amount of Hollywood embellishment that goes on”, she added.
The film is based on the real life 1900 siege of the international legations in Beijing by an anti-Christian, anti-foreign movement backed by the Qing government as part of the Boxer Rebellion, and a part based on Sir Claude was performed by English actor David Niven (1910–83).
Due to his military background, Sir Claude played a leading role in the defence of the Legation Quarter during the 55-day siege. Such were the odds stacked against them that obituaries for Sir Claude and Lady Ethel were published and preparations for their funerals were put in motion.
Following the siege, Lord Salisbury, the prime minister, offered Sir Claude a period of leave ahead of being reposted to Japan.
“The solicitude of Her Majesty and your Lordship with regard to my health calls for deep gratitude. The anxieties and hardships of the siege do not, however, appear in any way to have caused my health to suffer”, he replied.
It was during this time in Beijing that Sir Claude developed a friendship with Goro Shiba, a samurai from what is now Fukushima Prefecture who later became a member of the Imperial Japanese Army. As military attaché to the Japanese legation, he played a leading role in the siege. Indeed, the bond between the two men played a role in the establishment of the good bilateral relations that were blossoming.
Although two of Fahie’s aunts were a constant source of family stories, one in particular about Sir Claude has come to the fore.
“It turns out that when Sir Claude and Lady Ethel were here, they were to make a gift to the Emperor. But what does one give a living god? He came up with the idea of giving wild brook trout eggs from Colorado and bringing them over and releasing them into Lake Chuzenji in Nikko, where the British Embassy had a villa”, Fahie explained.
“So they released the eggs and they survived, so all of the trout up in Chuzenji today are the descendants of the fish that were there thanks to my ancestors, which is quite entertaining”.
In fact, Sir Claude’s contribution to Lake Chuzenji provided a springboard for Fahie’s attempts to connect with her past.
As a member of a fishing club in France, Fahie’s father was invited to go fishing in Japan in 2008 by one of his fellow members, who was Japanese. That, in turn, brought back memories of Sir Claude’s gift a century earlier.
“My father went up there to go fishing and he caught one, he says, and he also went and saw the crates in which the eggs were imported at the former Imperial Hatchery near the villa”, said Fahie.
While in Japan, Fahie’s father was able to visit the British Embassy Tokyo following correspondence with Sir Graham Fry KCMG, then the ambassador. That visit would later prove fortuitous, as it would enable Sarah Madden to track down a stone laid by Sir Claude in the embassy’s gardens using a detailed description supplied by Fahie’s father. Positioned next to some cedrus deodara trees, the inscription on the stone reads:
“Seedlings of 1904, the year of the Russo–Japanese war.
Presented to H.E. Sir Claude MacDonald British Ambassador from Viscount Masando Inata Master of the Ceremonies”.
During her visit, Kate Fahie presented Paul Madden with a copy of Imperial Servant: The Life and Times of Sir Claude MacDonald by Sylvia H Siegler. Written as a PhD thesis at Claremont Graduate University in the United States, that copy is now held in the embassy’s library. And the light now being cast on Sir Claude’s life has piqued Sarah Madden’s interest in the embassy’s history.
“I had seen the wall of photographs of previous ambassadors in the library, but not really taken note of the names of the very early ones. But once you meet their descendants, it reminds you they were real people, not just sepia faces with fine whiskers”, she said. “Since Kate’s visit to the residence and tracking down the engraved stone in the garden with Sir Claude’s name on it, it has certainly made me wonder if there are many more hidden treasures around”.
Fahie said that she is still developing a sense of Sir Claude’s character, but she continues to work towards a better understanding of him, even if a heavy workload often gets in the way.
“It is still slightly abstract, but little by little I am starting to see things around me that randomly pop up—print works, or if I visit a museum I go, ‘Ah, that’s the same year as my ancestors were here’ ”, said Fahie.
“In this modern age where we’re used to recording everything and everything is documented, it’s quite fun putting the pieces together, doing a bit of detective work—a lot of it is there, I just need to find it and read it”.