Aston, William George (DNB12)

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ASTON, WILLIAM GEORGE (1841–1911), Japanese scholar, born near Londonderry on 9 April 1841, was son of George Robert Aston, minister of the Unitarian Church of Ireland and school-master. Receiving early education from his father, he matriculated at Queen's College, Belfast, 1859, and after a distinguished career as a student, graduated in the Queen's University of Ireland, B.A. in 1862 and M.A. in 1863, on both occasions being gold medallist in classics and taking honours also in modern languages and literature. In 1890 he was made by the Queen's University hon. D.Lit.

In 1864 Aston was appointed student interpreter in the British Consular Service in Japan, and in the autumn joined the staff of the British legation at Yedo (Tokio), where (Sir) Ernest Satow was already filling a like position.

Aston's official career extended over twenty-five highly interesting years in the history of Japan and Korea. Sir Harry Parkes [q. v.] became envoy at Yedo in 1865, and it was largely on the advice of Aston and Satow, based on the result of their historical researches, that Parkes supported the revolutionary movement in Japan in 1868, and unlike the diplomatic representatives of other western powers hastened to acknowledge the new government of the emperor. From 1875 to 1880 Aston was assistant Japanese secretary of the British Legation at Tokio, and from 1880 to 1883 consul at Hiogo. He prepared the way for the first British treaty with Korea, which was signed on 26 Nov. 1883, and from 1884 to 1886 was British consul-general in Korea. He was the first European consular officer to reside in Soul, and he was present through the early troubles that marked Korea's first entry into the world, including the sanguinary 6meute at the capital in 1884. From 1886 to 1889 Aston was Japanese secretary of the British legation at Tokio.

From his first arrival in Japan Aston rapidly turned to advantage his linguistic aptitudes, which proved of value in his official work and eventually gave him a high reputation as a Japanese scholar. When he reached Japan, scarcely half a dozen Europeans had succeeded in acquiring a practical knowledge of the language. There was hardly a phrase book; there were no dictionaries, and no elementary grammar either for Europeans or for Japanese students, grammar being ignored in the Japanese school and college curriculum, and left entirely to philologists, whose works (few in number) were too abstruse for study by any but the most advanced students. Not until ten years after Aston's arrival was the first attempt at a grammar on European models published by the education department of the imperial government. Aston in the interval not only acquired a complete, accurate, and eloquent command of the spoken language, and a facility of using the written language, which is different from the spoken in essential characteristics, but he compiled grammars (1869 and 1872) of both the spoken and written Japanese languages on the European method, and on lines of scientific philology. Aston's grammars were superseded by the more comprehensive works of Professor Basil Hall Chamberlain on 'Colloquial Japanese' (1888) and 'The Study of Japanese Writing' (1899), but Aston led the way in the arduous task. Later he extended his studies into Chinese and Korean philology, and was the first among either European or Asiatic scholars to show the affinity of the Korean and Japanese languages.

At the same time Aston was an original and exhaustive investigator of the history, religion, political system, and literature of Japan. He was the first European to complete a literal translation of the Nihongi, the 'Ancient Chronicles of Japan' (1896); this work and Professor Chamberlain's translation of the Kojiki, the Ancient Records, form the original authorities for the mythology and history of ancient Japan. The original is written in the most abstruse style, and Aston for the purpose of his translation, which though literal is graceful and simple, had to consult hundreds of explanatory volumes by native commentators, as well as the Chinese classics.

His subsequent works on 'Japanese Literature' (1899) and on 'Shinto' (1905), the indigenous religion of Japan, became recognised text-books; they have been translated into Japanese and are used and quoted by leading native scholars in Japan. Aston also wrote on historical and philological subjects in the 'Transactions' of the Asiatic Society of Japan, the Japan Society, and the Royal Asiatic Society of London. According to Dr. Haga, professor of literature in Tokio University, Aston's literary exertions, combined with those of Satow and Chamberlain, generated that thorough understanding of the Japanese by the English which culminated in the Anglo-Japanese alliance of 1902.

On retiring from Japan on a pension in 1889, Aston was made C.M.G. Thenceforward he resided at Beer, South Devon, where he died on 22 Nov. 1911. He had long suffered from pulmonary trouble, but ill-health never diminished his geniality. He married in 1871 Janet, daughter of R. Smith of Belfast; she predeceased him, without issue. His unique collection of native Japanese books, numbering some 9500 volumes and including many rare block printed editions, was acquired for Cambridge University library in January 1912.

[The Times, 23 Nov. 1911, 2 Feb. 1912; Foreign Office List; Who's Who, 1911; personal knowledge.]

J. H. L.