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First envoy G.J. Ramstedt

Learning at the Service of Diplomacy - G. J. Ramstedt as Finland's First Envoy to Japan

Kauko Laitinen, Ph.D., Docent
Renvall Institute
University of Helsinki

Eight decades ago, on February 12, 1920, Finland's first envoy to Japan, Gustaf John Ramstedt (1873-1959), arrived in Tokyo. Finland had declared its independence on December 6, 1917 and did not yet have diplomats of its own, but had to depend on personnel recruited from outside the Foreign Ministry. RamstedtRamstedt was professor extraordinarius in Altaic languages at the University of Helsinki, when he was asked to serve as Finland's Charge d' affaires in Japan. Japan had de facto acknowledged Finland on May 16, 1999 and the latter was informed about it on May 23. Diplomatic relations were established between the two countries on May 24, 1919. Japan was the first country in Asia where Finland sent a permanent representative. Japan's recognition of Finnish independence was considered very important as she had shown her strength in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905) and was now the major power in Asia. Finns also remembered Japan for her support to Finnish independence movement activists such as Konni Zilliacus, who had stayed in Japan in 1894-96 and was therefore known among Japanese politicians.

Ramstedt was an Asia specialist: he had been on several scientific expeditions to Mongolia, the Chinese Turkestan and the borders of Afghanistan before. When he boarded the steamer Iyo Maru at Marseille bound for Asia, he began learning the Japanese language with the help of his fellow Japanese passengers and books he had just bought in London. When he arrived in Japan, he already conversed fluently in Japanese. The new legation spared the cost of hiring an interpreter, since the Finnish Charge d'Affaires acted as his own interpreter. While in Japan, Ramstedt besides his diplomatic duties even learned Korean and contributed to the research of its origin. He also developed his famous Altaic hypothesis, according to which the Ural-Altaic languages are related. Later research has, however, cast doubts on this hypothesis at least as far as the relation between Finnish and Japanese is concerned.

While Ramstedt considered himself a novice in the diplomatic field, according to contemporaries he, thanks to his language abilities, was very successful in socialising with the higher echelons of the Japanese society. In this Finland's Charge d'Affaires compared well with Sir Charles Eliot, Britain's ambassador and a scholar who had written on East Asian religions and even a grammar of Finnish, and the German Ambassador, Dr. Wilhelm Solf.

Ramstedt stayed in Japan until 1929. Due to his academic background, he was fond of lecturing and associating with scholars and students. A recent biography on Ramstedt by Harry Halen casts some new light on this less known activity of the Finnish envoy, adding to what is already written in Ramstedt's own recollections about his years in Japan (see literature list below).

Ramstedt was a frequent guest lecturer at Tokyo Imperial University, thanks to introduction from professor Kurakichi Shiratori, a famous East Asianist at the university and a foreign member of the Finno-Ugrian Society. Ramstedt's lectures dealt with the Finno-Ugrian peoples, comparative Altaistics, folklore, as well as the study of the vernacular language and dialects. Among his listeners was Kunio Yanagita (1875-1962), who had been an official at the Ministry of Agriculture. When the League of Nations met in Geneva to discuss whether Aland Islands should belong to Finland or Sweden, Yanagita was a member of the Japanese delegation, whose support to Finland, according to Ramstedt, was crucial when the organisation in 1921 made its decision in Finland's favour. Later Yanagita became known as Japan's foremost ethnologist and folklorist. He even stayed in Europe for a couple of years getting acquainted with research of folk traditions. Due to inspiration from Ramstedt Yanagita became interested in dialectal vocabulary of Japanese, organized students to field work of collecting dialectal material and wrote voluminously on it. He also edited the ethnographic journal Minzoku, to which also Ramstedt contributed articles in 1926.

Among other Japanese scholars Ramstedt is known to have inspired at least Izuru Shimura in the field of Altaistics, Kyosuke Kindaichi (1882-1971) in the research of the Ainu language and Shimpei Ogura (1882-1944) in Korean studies.

During his lectures Ramstedt had dealt also with Kalevala pointing out that the Finnish national epic did not yet exist in Japanese translation. After Ramstedt had already finished his mission and returned to Finland, he heard from his successor Mr. Winckelman, that Kakutan Morimoto, who had happened to listen to Ramstedt's lecture, had come to the legation and brought with him a complete translation of Kalevala with expert opinions on it. Ramstedt did not remember Morimoto, but was glad to write a preface to the translation, which was published in 1937.

In December 1926 Ramstedt lectured on agriculture at the International Club in Tokyo. He concluded his presentation incautiously by remarking that "modern agricultural techniques make traditional Japanese methods of cultivation look outdated". The audience was not pleased and left the place without talking to the lecturer. Only one remained. He was Kenji Miyazawa (1896-1933), an employee at Hanamaki Agricultural Institute. He was curious about the Japanese-speaking foreigner. The two soon found a common topic in dialects, since Miyazawa was fond of using dialectal expressions in his literal production.

Japanese newspapers had reported that the new Finnish Charge d'Affaires was also chairman of Finnish Esperanto Society. Therefore he was visited by representatives of Japan Esperanto Society at Tsukiji Seiyoken, where he was staying, only two days after his arrival. On February 25 a welcome reception was held for him at Hongo Enrakuken. Ramstedt took eagerly part in monthly meetings of Japan Esperanto Society, and gave presentations on Finland in their meetings. Ramstedt's most important contact among Japanese Esperantists was Morizo Ga (1884-1948), who introduced Ramstedt to Esperantists all over Japan. Esperantists were an important network for Ramstedt in his attempts to make publicity for Finland. He gave lectures in Esperanto in Sendai, Yokohama, Yokosuka, Nagoya, Kyoto, Osaka, Kobe, Okayama, Fukuoka, Nagasaki, etc. Once Ramstedt lectured in Kanazawa about Finland for four days in Esperanto in January 1922, tempting about one thousand listeners, even the local governor. In Shizuoka the local governor was opposed to Esperanto, which he apparently saw a threat to Japanese culture. He had even banned the Esperanto associations in his province. Aware of this Ramstedt, however, decided to accept an invitation to lecture there. The lecture went smoothly without police interference, and later the Esperanto associations could also restart their activities. The Finnish Charge d'Affaires seems to have softened the governor's attitude.

Inspired by him, Kunio Yanagita became interested in Esperanto. Kenji Miyazawa wanted to learn Esperanto in order to be able to translate his poems into that language. Another scholar whom Ramstedt inspired through his Esperanto lectures was Naokazu Kawasaki, who later became professor in linguistics.

Otherwise Ramstedt's literary ambitions seem to have been in continuation of his previous academic work, such as compilations of Mongol, Tungusic and Korean dictionaries and vocabularies. This did not necessarily impress some of his Finnish contemporaries. As Ramstedt was at the same time accredited also to Thailand and China, he was at least once openly criticised by an aide of the Finnish Honorary Consul in Shanghai, who in a letter to the Finnish newspaper Helsingin Sanomat accused Ramstedt of neglecting the Middle Kingdom as his main interest in Asia was in "investigating some ancient form of Japanese language on the island of Formosa". While this complaint was not entirely without grounds, the fact remains that Ramstedt's charm as a diplomat was very much due to his learning. We still need to know more about Ramstedt's scholarly and intellectual contacts in Japan.


Halen, Harry, Biliktu Baksi. The Knowledgeable Teacher. G.J.Ramstedt's Career as a Scholar. Memories de la Societe de la Finno-Ougrienne, vol.229, Vammala: Finno- Ugrian Society 1998. 391p

Gustaf Ramstedt, Nanakai no toho ryoko, Japanese translation by Kazuko Aramaki of Seitseman retkea itaan. Tokyo: Chuo Koronsha 1992. 258 p.

Gustaf Ramstedt, Finrando shodai koshi tai-Nichi kembun roku, Japanese translation by Reiko Sakai of Lahettilaana Nipponissa. Tokyo: Japan-Finland Society 1987. 246 p.

Halen, Harry, Shodai chunichi Finrando koshi G.J. Ramstedt: Finrando Teeburu p.301-328: Japan-Finland Society 2000.

Ichikawa Kayoko, Ramstedt hakase no koto, Finrando Teeburu p.329-352: Japan-Finland Society 2000

Aalto, Pentti, Gustaf John Ramstedt, 75th Anniversary of Finnish- Japanese Diplomatic Relations (in Japanese) p.5-7: Embassy of Finland,Tokyo 1994.

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Updated 1/23/2017

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