- 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
One night in January, 1861, Heusken, now serving as interpreter for the American legation, was going home on foot in the dark, and was set upon and murdered. There was great outcry from the Western diplomatic staffs, but Townsend Harris refused to join it. Cool and reasonable, he declared it was Heusken’s own fault for ignoring the rules of common sense. He himself, said Harris, never walked in Yedo after dark, and Mr. Heusken should have known better. The consequent indignation of his brother diplomats can be imagined. At best, feeling runs high in a small community like theirs that considers itself in danger from surrounding natives, and they were already jealous of their doyen because he obviously enjoyed the esteem of the Japanese. Sir Rutherford Alcock, the British minister, was especially incensed when the American pronounced himself satisfied by the indemnity of $10,000 paid by the Japanese to Heusken’s mother. Harris should have asked for more, said Alcock, who put the rates for assassinated Britons at anything from $20,000 to $50,000, and later pushed the ante up to £10,000 in gold when one of his officials was murdered.
After the death of Heusken the diplomats demanded that the Shogun’s people guarantee their safety by enforcing tighter security measures, and they moved out of Yedo until the guarantee was received. Only Townsend Harris refused to leave. His colleagues were even more angry when they found that he had, on the other hand, suggested that the Westerners should waive their right to live in Yedo as from the first of 1862. He must have realized the truth, that the authorities could not hold down the people no matter how many guarantees of security they might give, but the other foreigners would not believe it. That July, in 1861, a band of fourteen ronin attacked the British legation, and about a year later another mob attacked again and burned it down. The British built a new one, but in February of 1863, after Harris had gone home from Japan, the ronin burned that one too, and later did the same to the American legation, at which point the diplomatic corps gave up for good and moved to Yokohama. But all that came later.
Rutherford Alcock implied that Townsend Harris toadied to the Japanese, but the American’s attitude is easy to understand. He thought the soft approach better, that was all. He would never have called himself a saber-rattler, and probably preferred to dismiss the occasions when he had been guilty of a rattle or two as of no importance. In any case, he did not have much more time to annoy Sir Rutherford. Word arrived that Lincoln had been elected President in 1860, and Townsend Harris, that staunch Democrat, would not serve under a Republican. In July of ’61 he handed in his resignation, and as soon as his successor, Robert H. Pruyn, arrived the following year, Townsend Harris went home to New York.
For the rest of his life he stayed there, though he took an occasional trip—to Europe with his nephew Brander Matthews, and to Florida once or twice. Almost every day in New York he went to the Union Club at the corner of Twenty-second Street and Fifth Avenue. He didn’t die until 1878, so he must have seen what Alcock said about him in the book The Capital of the Tycoon , because that was published in 1863. “The thoroughgoing and clear-headed American,” Alcock called him with manifest self-control that slipped a few pages later when the writer referred to Harris’ methods of negotiating his treaty. Harris had only to point to the British in China, said Alcock, to have his way on everything. “This was a veritable tour de maître , to use and turn to such account the belligerent allies, holding them in terrorum over the Japanese—and to do this in such a way that should give the United States all the benefit and the credit, without any of the cost of great expeditions;—while to Great Britain was left only the odium of a reputation at once bellicose and exigeant.”
Alcock could have saved his complaints. In the long run the United States ceded her position in Japan by default, and Britain was able to take over. By that time the country was altogether changed by revolution. The shogunate’s influence had begun to slip the moment Perry’s ships appeared in Yedo Bay, and soon after Townsend Harris went home, everything exploded. “Honor the Mikado and expel the barbarians!’ was the rallying cry of the rebels, and the unrest grew rapidly into all-out civil war. Hastily, Britain, Holland, and France sent ships to protect their nationals. The Shogun’s princes tried in vain to keep order, but in October of 1867 the last Tokugawa shogun fled his palace in Yedo, and the Imperial restoration soon followed. But the foreigners, and their great ships that had been the original cause of the whole debacle, remained.