Aston, William George (1841–1911), Japanese scholar and diplomat, was born 9 April 1841, near Derry, the son of George Robert Aston, a Unitarian minister. In the early 1850s the family moved to Saintfield, Co. Down, where his father established a school in which Aston himself taught, before his matriculation at QCB in 1859. As a student he was very successful, graduating as a gold medallist in classics for both BA (1862) and MA (1863) degrees.
The following year Aston joined the British consular service in Japan. At that time relatively few Europeans had any sound knowledge of the Japanese language, and yet, despite the dearth of any proper grammars, he applied his linguistic abilities to great effect and rapidly gained fluency in both written and spoken Japanese. He also acquired a thorough appreciation of the political climate of the country, through his friendship with Kido Takayoshi, who played an important role in the Meiji restoration of 1868. As part of a team of researchers, Aston made findings that influenced Sir Harry Parkes, British envoy to Yedo, in his support for the revolutionary movement. Appointed interpreter and translator to the legation in 1870, Aston served as assistant Japanese secretary of the British legation at Tokyo (1875–80). This was followed by several spells as acting consul at Hiogo during the early 1880s and an appointment as consul to Nagasaki in 1882.
He subsequently participated in the negotiations that resulted in the treaty of friendship and commerce between the British and Korean governments (1883), after which he was appointed provisional consul general in Korea (1884). As the first European consular officer to live in Seoul, he witnessed at first hand the political strife that marked the early days of the country's existence. Though his determined efforts to master the Korean language paid off, his stay in Seoul proved disastrous for his health. This forced him to return to Japan in 1886, where he was appointed Japanese secretary to the British legation at Tokyo.
Persistent poor health forced him to retire in 1889, when he was made CMG. After a brief period of recuperation in Switzerland, he settled in Beer, Devon, where he lived for the remainder of his life. There he pursued his work in Japanese scholarship, for which he is principally remembered. Having compiled and published some of the earliest grammars of both spoken and written Japanese between 1869 and 1872, which went to several editions, he later turned his attention to Chinese and Korean philology, and Japanese history, politics, culture and religion. The first of his three major works on Japan, a translation of the Nihon shoki or Nihongi (‘Chronicles of Japan’), was published in 1896. Republished in 2005, it remains the principal reference work on Japanese antiquity as well as an invaluable resource for students of Japanese folklore, comparative religion, and history. This was followed by A history of Japanese literature (1899) and Shinto, the way of the gods (1905), both of which became recognised as standard textbooks by native Japanese scholars.
A founder member of the Asiatic Society of Japan, he was a regular contributor to its Transactions and served as its president in 1888–9. He also contributed to Phoenix, and to the journals of the Japan Society, the Royal Asiatic Society of London, the Folklore Society and the Royal Anthropological Institute. These writings collectively increased the profile and understanding of Japanese culture in the west. He maintained his links with Ulster throughout his years in the east, and in 1870 he sent the first Japanese child to be educated in Belfast. In 1890 he received an honorary D.Litt. from QCB. In 1871 he married Janet Smith of Belfast (d. 1908); they had no family. He died 22 November 1911 at his Devon home. He was an enthusiastic book collector, and the vast bulk of his library of Japanese books was acquired by Cambridge University Library in 1912. The collection of over 9,500 books includes many rare block editions. Aston is considered a founding figure of Japanology, and a six-volume edition of his collected works, including previously uncollected papers, was published in 2001.