The Daily Telegraph
Leading authority on Japan’s historical relations with Britain
PROFESSOR IAN NISH, who has died aged 96, was one of the world’s foremost academic experts on the foreign relations of modern Japan, and in particular on the period of Anglo-japanese alliance at the beginning of the 20th century.
As a lecturer in international history at the London School of Economics from 1963, and professor from 1980 until his formal retirement in 1991, Nish was a prolific author and an exemplary teacher and researcher.
His distinction was recognised when he was asked in 1995 to be the British convenor of the Anglo-japanese History Project, one of a set of bilateral studies initiated by the prime minister Tomiichi Murayama, whose speech on August 15 1995, the 50th anniversary of the Japanese surrender, apologised for the first time for the atrocities committed in the name of imperial Japan during the Second World War.
Supervised by Nish and his friend Professor Chihiro Hosoya of the University of Japan, the project developed through conferences and workshops to the publication of The History of Anglo-japanese Relations 1600-2000, in five volumes and in both languages. It was an immense undertaking, covering the political, diplomatic, economic, cultural and strategic interactions between the two countries.
Ian Hill Nish was born in Edinburgh on June 3 1926, the son of David Nish and Marion, née Hill. He was educated at George Watson’s College – and it was there that he was first attracted to the idea of studying Japanese, though he was too young to join a wartime programme seeking recruits for Oriental languages.
Called up in 1944, he joined the RAF, but was transferred to the infantry, then posted to India with the intelligence corps. After volunteering for a crash course in Japanese, based first in Simla and later in Karachi, he served in Malaya and Singapore helping to interrogate Japanese prisoners, and as a captain in the occupation force at Kure in southern Japan.
Demobbed in 1948, Nish completed an interrupted undergraduate degree in History at Edinburgh university and a PHD at SOAS in London before spending six months in Japan en route to a first
academic appointment, at the University of Sydney.
His first book, The Anglo-japanese Alliance: The Diplomacy of Two Island Empires 1894-1907, was published in 1966 and was followed in 1972 by Alliance in Decline: A Study in Anglo-japanese Relations 1908-23. These remain the standard histories of a diplomatic co-operation that was first formalised in 1902, reflecting the two countries’ mutual interests as island naval powers with difficult continental neighbours, their concern over the threat of Russian imperialism – and the end of late-victorian Britain’s policy of preferring “splendid isolation” over permanent alliances.
To mark the centenary of the alliance in 2002, Nish published a new paper detailing diplomatic manoeuvres led by the Japanese statesman Marquis Ito leading up to the signing of the first treaty in London in January 1902.
His other works included The Origins of the Russojapanese War (1985), Japan’s Struggle with Internationalism: Japan, China, and the League of Nations (1993) and a two-volume History of Manchuria, 1840-1948
– published in 2016, when he was 90.
A gentle scholar who never spoke ill of anyone, Nish was instrumental in the establishment in 1974 of the British Association of Japanese Studies and was president of the corresponding European association from 1985 to 1988. He was also an enthusiastic member of the Japan Society, which works to enhance Anglo-japanese relations in many fields. He was appointed CBE in 1990 and held the Japanese Order of the Rising Sun.
He married, in 1965, Rona Speirs, who died in 2020. He is survived by their two daughters.