Dutch diplomatic passport
Dutch diplomatic passport.

Deep Dive
What is a Consul General?


Until 1855, the Netherlands didn’t have a diplomatic representative in Japan. There was only a trading post, managed by a chief agent known as Opperhoofd.

This changed when the last Opperhoofd, Jan Hendrik Donker Curtius (1813–1879), was made “Dutch Commissioner in Japan.” Although the Dutch government invented the title to make Donker Curtius appear important without giving him a diplomatic rank, he was nonetheless a true diplomat. He negotiated the first trade treaty with Japan and met with its government in Edo as the diplomatic representative of the Netherlands.

His replacement, Jan Karel de Wit (1819–1884), posted in Japan between 1860 and 1863, was appointed consul general. As was De Wit’s successor, Dirk de Graeff van Polsbroek (1833–1916).

Between 1868 and 1901, Dutch diplomatic representatives in Japan were ranked minister resident. Afterwards, the rank was upgraded to envoy extraordinary and minister plenipotentiary. The Dutch legation in Tokyo finally became an embassy, headed by an ambassador, in 1952.

Why do all these fancy titles exist, how do they differ, and what does an ambassador, minister plenipotentiary, or consul general actually do?

Congress of Vienna, 1815

Since resident diplomatic missions came into being in Europe in the fifteenth century, diplomats were ranked according to the importance of their states. This was easy to disagree on. So diplomatic titles and status were notoriously imprecise.

The Congress of Vienna—a conference of European diplomats to rebuild the political order after the chaos of the Napoleonic Wars—brought clarity. It decided that diplomatic representatives should take precedence in their respective classes according to the official date of notification of their arrival, and ranked them as follows:

  1. Ambassador
  2. Envoy extraordinary and minister plenipotentiary
  3. Minister resident (added by the Congress of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1818)
  4. Chargé d’affaires

The ranks determined ceremonial details such as order of introduction at official meetings, table seatings at banquets, position at processions, and so on. The system is essentially the same today.

Diplomatic mission

The functions of a diplomatic mission—codified in the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations of 1961—include the following:1

  1. Represent the home country in the host country.
  2. Protect the interests of the home country and its citizens in the host country.
  3. Negotiate with the government of the host country.
  4. Report on conditions and developments in the host country.
  5. Promote friendly relations between the home and the host country, and develop their economic, cultural and scientific relations.
  6. Provide consular services such as issuing passports, travel documents, and visas, and assist the home country’s citizens in the host country.

Diplomatic ranks / Heads of mission


The ambassador represents the home country in all aspects of the bilateral relationship and builds a network to open doors at the highest levels. Historically, issues of war, peace, and security were the main focus. Later, trade issues became more central. Nowadays, the agenda is much broader, featuring issues from cultural exchange to cooperation on innovation.

Ambassadors used to be rare. Only great powers, close allies, and related monarchies sent them to each other. “Lesser” nations had legations and envoys. After the end of WWII in 1945, the United Nations decided that all sovereign states were of equal rank. Legations and envoys became embassies and ambassadors. The Dutch legation in Japan became an embassy in 1952.2

Envoy extraordinary and minister plenipotentiary

Usually called “minister,” this diplomatic officer headed the lower status legation. The head of the Dutch legation was ranked at this level from 1901 onwards. The full title is no longer used, but today the second ranked person at the Dutch embassy in Japan is a minister plenipotentiary.

Minister resident

A third ranked head of mission. The Dutch legation in Japan was headed by a minister resident between 1868 and 1901. This rank was deleted at the Vienna Convention of 1961.

Chargé d’affaires

This title indicates the diplomatic officer—generally the highest ranked diplomat after the ambassador— who serves as the chief of mission when the chief is absent, or in-between chiefs.

Other staff


A senior diplomatic rank still in use. There can be multiple counselors at the same time. In the early 20th century this was the Dutch legation’s main advisor, second in rank, and was spelled councillor.


The secretary used to have clerical and advisory responsibilities. Secretaries at the Dutch embassy today are diplomats concerned with politics, trade, economy, culture, etc. They report on Japan to the Netherlands and communicate with Japan’s ministeries. The Dutch diplomatic service only has first and second secretaries. The rank of third secretary has been discontinued.


The chancellor was the chief administrative clerk. The Dutch embassy in Japan no longer uses this title. It has an operational manager, responsible for managing the buildings, grounds, personnel, and related matters.

Consul general

The head of a consulate general, a subordinate branch office of the embassy. The Dutch consulate general in Osaka is responsible for consular, economic, and cultural issues in Western Japan.

Between 1860 and 1868, the Dutch ‘diplomatic’ mission in Japan was a consulate general. But because the Dutch consul general was also a political agent, it was effectively a legation. Dutch Consul General De Graeff van Polsbroek helped negotiate trade treaties with Japan for Switzerland, Belgium, Denmark, Sweden and Norway.

A consul general today does not deal with political issues or negotiate treaties; this is the ambassador ‘s domain. Incidentally, the Dutch ambassador no longer negotiates trade treaties either. That responsibility has been transferred to the EU.

The first Dutch consulate general in Japan in the modern sense was opened in 1930, in Kobe.


The consular rank immediately below consul general and immediately above vice-consul. The term is commonly used as a synonym for all consular officers.

Honorary consul

Honorary consuls are not career diplomats. They are often citizens of the host country and perform their work on an honorary basis. They represent Dutch commercial interests and help Dutch nationals abroad in emergency situations.

G. R. Berridge is the author of Diplomacy: Theory and Practice (Palgrave-Macmillan) and other books about the practice of diplomacy.


  • Footnotes are only shown on this site, not in the book.
  • See the Archive for some of the primary documents used in the study.

1 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations and Optional Protocols, Article 3, April 18, 1961.

2 Petrus Ephrem Teppema (1890–1960) was the first Dutch ambassador in Japan. Poelgeest, L. van (1999). Japanse besognes. Nederland en Japan 1945-1975. Sdu Uitgevers, 130.


Reference for Citations

Berridge, G. R. (). What is a Consul General?, From Dejima to Tokyo. Retrieved on April 23, 2024 (GMT) from https://www.dejima-tokyo.com/articles/21/100-deep-dive-what-is-a-consul-general

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