- Historic Sites
A Yankee Barbarian At The Shogun’s Court
Spies and assassins stalked our first consul to Japan, his hosts bluntly told him to leave, and his own government neglected him
June 1964 | Volume 15, Issue 4
In 1853 an American named Townsend Harris, a merchant who was spending most of his time that year between Hong Kong and Shanghai, pricked up his ears at the news that his government was planning to force a way into Japan. Harris was no longer young, and his business in the Far East had lately been so bad that he had been forced to sell his trading vessel. Consequently, he felt the strain of uncertainty, and wondered if there might not be a place for him on Commodore Perry’s staff. He wrote and offered his services, but Perry wouldn’t consider adding him to the force. Like many other civilians who wrote to the Commodore, he was turned down. His opportunity was to come, but that would be later.
Harris was only one of many people living under a strain. The Japanese too were badly worried, though few outside their tight little islands realized it. They were not supposed to be aware even that the Perry expedition was in preparation, but they knew more about the outside world than the world could have guessed, especially about the way things were going for their neighbor, China. Like the Chinese, the Japanese believed firmly in the policy of isolation. As an island empire, Japan naturally found it easier to carry out this policy. Besides, as a smaller country she wasn’t apt to tempt imperialists quite as strongly. Only the Dutch, of all the eager European traders, had been successful in gaining a foothold in Japan. Even so, they were kept immured on the little island of Deshima, off Nagasaki, where they had to live without their wives and families; they were forbidden to set foot on the main islands.
The Chinese had tried to take just as high a hand with foreign merchants, but they hadn’t got away with it. It is true that for years the British, American, French, and other “barbarians” were forced to keep to their allotted space in “factories” outside the walls of Canton, but they were getting out of hand, and for several years had been troublesome. Led by the British, they had fought the Chinese, gravely shaking the old order. The barbarians now had footholds in various ports along the coast, and were constantly trying to get into the interior, a state of affairs shocking not only to China but to her near neighbor, Japan. Yedo—modern Tokyo—as well as Peking was concerned when the British demanded audience of the Emperor of China. Yedo knew that the barbarians would certainly soon cast their covetous eyes further.
And now it was on the verge of happening. Only one thing had not been foreseen in Japan—that America, rather than Britain, would be the intruder. Usually it was the British who took the offensive, but in iHßg they considered themselves too seriously enmeshed in China to branch out in a new direction. Meanwhile the Americans, who had recently fulfilled their “manifest destiny” and consolidated their hold upon their own Pacific coast, were looking for new, commercially profitable outlets for their expansive spirit.
So Commodore Perry sailed into Yedo Bay, and lie was unimpeded. Fortunately for the Japanese, when the thing happened at last they were too stunned to offer resistance, and no bloodshed resulted. Perry realized he was breaking into a world that had withstood encroachment for more than two centuries, and he was tactful. He managed to handle everything without violence, emerging in 1854 with the preliminary Treaty of Kanagawa. What he did not bring out with him was a full understanding of the situation regarding Japan’s governing body, but this was no wonder: its complexity takes a long time to appreciate.
Early in the seventeenth century, the emperor had been supplanted in power, but not actually in name, by chieftains, called shoguns, of the Tokugawa clan. They ruled the country from Yedo. The imperial dynasty survived, but more as a figurehead; the emperor lived in Kyoto and was revered as a religious symbol, but it was the shogun who really ran the country. The subtlety of this arrangement was difficult for any Westerner to grasp, and Perry made the mistake of considering the emperor, or mikado, a nonentity. Certainly the shogunate imposed on the people a pervasive regimentation, but nothing human is completely biddable, and there were occasional waves of dissidence in Japan. Among the ruling classes, even in Yedo, some nobles harbored a secret, deep-seated loyalty to the mikado.