The Japan400 Telescope

The Japan400 Telescope by I R Poyser

The start of the project

In 2012 we were commissioned by Japan400 to make a presentation brass telescope as a gift from the people of present-day Great Britain to the people of Japan. This gift was to mark the four hundredth anniversary of the gift of a telescope in 1613 by King James I of England to the ruler of Japan.

Japan400 is a committee of academics, businessmen and others from many walks of life in both Japan and the United Kingdom who have worked over many years to promote links between the two countries. They formed the Japan400 organization to produce events in the year 2013 to celebrate 400 years of trade, cultural exchange and scientific cooperation between Japan and Great Britain, which began in 1613 with that gift of a telescope from King James I of England to the Shogun of Japan and the Shogun’s reciprocal gifts, which included two suits of armour and silk screens.

The historical background

In 1611 King James I of England wanted to initiate trade between England and Japan; the Dutch were already trading with Japan. James’s advisor was Robert Cecil, the 1st Earl of Salisbury. James sent a tiny fleet of three ships owned by the East India Company, but only one ship, the Clove, was intended to go all the way to Japan. The master of the Clove, John Saris, carried with him gifts from the king, which included a lavishly prepared letter of friendship and a telescope. What was remarkable about the gift of the telescope was that telescopes had only been invented three years previously in 1608 in Holland.

In 1613 the Clove arrived at Japan where John Saris was greeted by the Lord of Hirado, Matsura Hoin. This feudal lord smoothed the path of protocol to the de facto ruler of Japan, the retired Shogun – Tokugawa Ieyasu. Saris presented the letter and the telescope on the 8th of September 1613. In return, the Shogun sent reciprocal gifts to King James, which included a letter of friendship, some silk screens and two sets of Japanese armour. It was this exchange of gifts that began the four hundred years of trade and friendship between the islands of Japan and the islands of Great Britain that continues to this day.

That original telescope is lost – it was probably destroyed in a fire – and nothing is known about its appearance except that it was made of silver gilt and was probably about 2 metres long. Tokugawa Ieyasu’s screens are likewise lost, but his two suits of armour still exist in the Royal Armouries Museums in Leeds and in the Tower of London.

The Japan400 committee decided to commemorate the four hundredth anniversary of Saris’s presentation to Tokugawa Ieyasu by having another telescope made, this one being a modern, polished brass telescope on a wooden tripod, British made and featuring British optics. The committee wanted to make the presentation on the exact anniversary of the original presentation and to feature it at places that had historical associations with the persons involved originally.

The co-chairman of Japan400, Professor Timon Screech, gave us the commission to make the presentation telescope, to be ready in time for the anniversary, 8th September 2013.

The Japan400 events that featured our telescope

The Japan400 Telescope, in the library of Hatfield House

This delightful photograph was taken in the library of Hatfield House. The portrait over the marble fireplace is of Robert Cecil, the First Earl of Salisbury and advisor to King James. It is not an oil painting but a remarkable mosaic, made in Venice and given to him in 1608, which gives some indication of the importance of Robert Cecil.
From the left: Professor Timon Screech, co-chair of Japan400; Mr Akira Matsura, descendant of the Lord of Hirado; the Marquess of Salisbury, descendant of the First Earl of Salisbury; Mr Akio Miyajima, Minister Plenipotentiary of Japan; Nicolas Maclean CMG, co-chair of Japan400.

In the year 2013 the 8th September fell on a Sunday, so the 400th anniversary presentation was deferred to Monday 9th September and the place of the presentation of the telescope was Hatfield House, which was built by the First Earl of Salisbury, who was the advisor to King James and who probably oversaw the sending of that original telescope.

Hatfield House is the home of the Marquess of Salisbury, who is the direct descendant of the First Earl, the advisor to King James. The man who received the telescope on behalf of the people of Japan was Mr Akira Matsura, who is the direct descendant of Matsura Hoin, the Lord of Hirado who welcomed Saris in 1613.


Later on the 9th September 2013 there was a more public presentation in the White Tower of the Tower of London, which is the home of the Royal Armouries Museum.

The Japan400 telescope in the Tower of London on 9th September 2013

In the Tower of London on 9th September 2013

On 15th September 2013 the telescope was displayed at the Banqueting House in Whitehall – the Inigo Jones masterpiece commissioned by James I, the ceiling of which was later decorated by Peter Paul Rubens, showing the apotheosis of James I. The occasion was ‘Two Cultures United by Tea’ organized by Japan400. There was a pleasing coincidence within the event: one of the guests was a pupil from Chatham Grammar School for Boys, where Japanese was taught and which had long held exchange visits between the school and a school in Japan, to help foster British-Japanese relations. Apparently the young man was impressed by the telescope but did not realize that the man who made it – Ian Poyser – had also been educated at his school and had learned his metalwork there.

On 17th January 2014 the Presentation Telescope, with its fitted wooden presentation case, was displayed at Jesus College, Cambridge at a seminar entitled ‘From King James’s Telescope to the Present and the Future: the Japan-British Partnership in Science and Technology’.

The brass plaque on the fitted wooden presentation box

The brass plaque on the fitted wooden presentation box
The speakers at the University of Cambridge with the Presentation Telescope in its casket

The speakers at the University of Cambridge with the Presentation Telescope in its casket.
From the left: Mrs Midori Maynard and her husband Robin Maynard OBE, who kindly funded the Presentation Telescope; Sir Peter Williams, former chairman of Oxford Instruments; Professor Paul Alexander of Jesus College Department of Astrophysics; Professor David Cope of Clare Hall; Lord Rees, Astronomer Royal; Professor Fumiya Iida, Department of Engineering, University of Cambridge; Nicolas Maclean CMG, co-chair of Japan400; Professor Roberto Cipolla, Engineering Department, University of Cambridge: Professor Eileen Reeves, Princeton University; Professor Timon Screech, co-chair of Japan400.

After the Cambridge seminar the telescope and presentation box were returned to us so that they and the oak tripod could be put in their wooden crates and shipped to the British Embassy in Tokyo, where they were put on display in one of the private dining rooms.

The Presentation Telescope at the British Embassy, Tokyo

The Presentation Telescope at the British Embassy, Tokyo
The commemorative plaque on the tripod legs
The two commemorative plaques on the tripod legs


His Royal Highness, the Crown Prince of Japan, Prince Naruhito, visited the Embassy and was shown the telescope, after which the telescope began a tour of cities in Japan.

The telescope’s final home will be in a rebuilt tower of Sunpu Castle, which was the home of the Shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu in the seventeenth century, when the telescope story began.

The Japan400 Presentation Telescope on its polished brass altazimuth mount and oak tripod

The Japan400 Presentation Telescope on its polished brass altazimuth mount and oak tripod.

The technical description of the Japan400 presentation Telescope

The Japan400 Telescope

The telescope for the Japan400 committee was to be a presentation item, a gift that was going to be used for ceremonial purposes, so it needed to be smaller than our standard astronomical telescopes, for the sake of portability. We decided to provide a polished brass astronomical telescope on an altazimuth mount, to be supported on an oak tripod with polished brass fittings.

When it was focused the telescope had a length of 42 inches; we built the telescope around a British-made achromatic doublet objective lens with a focal length of 1000 mm and a diameter of 86 mm. The engraved, polished brass eyepiece, which was a Plössl design, had a focal length of 35 mm, which gave the telescope a magnification of x29. The main tube of the instrument was a single piece of drawn brass tube with a diameter of 3½ inches. The circular rear plate of the telescope was engraved with the maker’s name – I. R. Poyser – and the year of its presentation to Japan, which was 2013.

The telescope was provided with two draw-tubes: The larger was a 2-inch diameter draw-tube for fine focusing, operated by a rack-and-pinion mechanism, the milled brass hand-wheel for which was on the right-hand side of the main tube. The smaller draw-tube was a 13/8 inch diameter draw-tube for coarse focusing which was a push-pull fit within the larger draw-tube. The objective lens of the main telescope was provided with a polished brass protective dust cap.

The telescope had a finder telescope mounted above, and to the left of the eyepiece, within adjustable rings. The objective lens of this finder had a diameter of 25 mm and a focal length of 360 mm, giving it a magnification of x10. The eyepiece of the finder was exactly the same as that on the main instrument but it was fitted with cross-hairs.

The oak tripod had a polished brass top that was 6 inches in diameter and the tripod was 53 inches tall. With the polished brass altazimuth mount the centre-line of the telescope was at a height of 61 inches. The telescope had two pairs of threaded brass studs placed symmetrically about its balance-point. These studs were fitted with milled brass knobs that allowed the telescope to be to be clamped into the cradle of the mount.

The altazimuth mount, showing the slotted cradles to receive the telescope brass studs

The altazimuth mount, showing the slotted cradles to receive the telescope brass studs
The Presentation Telescope showing the brass studs with their milled brass knobs

The Presentation Telescope showing the brass studs with their milled brass knobs


The Presentation Telescope was completed by having a fitted wooden box with four brass handles. The timber that we chose was wenge – a dark, dense hardwood whose colour set-off the polished brass of the telescope. This presentation casket was hand-made by Mr S Gates, a cabinet-maker of Penuwch in Mid Wales. All of the fittings of the casket were made of brass and its two brass locks were hand-made. It was an astonishing piece of woodwork because there were no screws or nails used in the construction of the cabinet – everything was held together by hand-cut dovetails.


The Presentation Telescope in its fitted wooden casket, ready for shipping to Japan


We are honoured to have been chosen to make the Japan400 Presentation Telescope. We thank the Japan400 team for that opportunity, we congratulate them on their ability to organize so many wonderful events, both in the United Kingdom and in Japan and we wish them continuing success in celebrating the cultural, trading and scientific links between the two countries.

We acknowledge with thanks the kindness of the Japan400 committee and the photographer Derek A C Davies for permission to reproduce some of the photographs of the Japan400 events.

Fuller details of the Japan400 events and organization can be found on their website and in the article by Sean Curtin: ‘The Return of Japan’s Lost Telescope after 400 Years’.


Ian Poyser

August 2014