- 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
Perry also overestimated the ignorance of the Japanese regarding the West. High-ranking Japanese knew a good deal more about the barbarian world than the barbarians knew of Japan. For years they had demanded Western books and newspapers from the Dutch at Deshima, and had made the merchants write them annual reports about the world outside. Of course, when the time came and they had to deal with foreigners, it suited them to pretend complete ignorance. Ignorance furnished a wonderful excuse for delay, deceit, and rudeness, but they usually knew quite a lot more than they admitted. A case in point is the famous miniature railway brought by Commodore Perry as a present to the Japanese. Obligingly, his hosts gazed in wonder and delight as it was demonstrated for them, and Perry fell like a combination Santa Claus and conjurer. Yet the court had really known about the railway all the time. The courtiers kept up with the Illustrated London News —the Shogun was a regular subscriber—which had carried the story, complete with pictures, while the expedition was fitting out.
Perry’s American soul would have abhorred any suggestion that the expedition’s aim was to acquire territory. He had large plans of a different sort and hoped that the Treaty of Kanagawa would be the beginning of much more maritime commerce for America in the Pacific. It was not merely a question, he felt, of persuading the Japanese to treat castaways nicely and permit foreign ships to refuel and provision at their ports. The United States should aim at something much more ambitious, at “establishing a foothold in this quarter of the globe,” wrote Perry hopefully, “as a measure of positive necessity in the sustainment of our maritime rights in the east.” For a start, he suggested, Americans might settle on the Bonins, the Ryukyus, and Formosa.
But the American administration was not carried along on the wave of Perry’s enthusiasm. There was still much undeveloped territory within the boundaries of the United States; Washington saw no reason to take on responsibilities in such remote regions. Naturally, however, American merchants in the East were of Perry’s way of thinking. One clause in the Treaty of Kanagawa caught their attention: it provided that an American consul general tor Japan be appointed to live there in a little port town called Shimoda, less than a hundred miles from Yedo. Though they knew nothing about Shimoda, the merchants felt that much depended on the man who got the job. They didn’t want some rank amateur from Washington; this consul general should be someone familiar with their particular problems. There was ample time to discuss the matter, for the consulate was not to open until at least eighteen months alter the treaty was concluded in March, 1854.
In the meantime, each of the other Western nations—Great Britain, Holland, and Russia—hurried to draw up preliminary conventions, as such first documents were called, and none had found it easy. The Japanese evinced such strong reluctance to admit facts that were obvious, backed down so consistently on agreements, and dragged their feet so often, that the foreigners became indignant and watchful. Clearly, the man who became the first American consul at Shimoda would have no easy task.
Townsend Harris was not born into a privileged class, and he was self-educated, having wrested his knowledge from books in the time he could spare from making a living. He went to work in a New York shop at the age of thirteen, but when he left New York for the Orient in 1849, at the age of forty-five, he was a leading citizen—a member of the Chamber of Commerce and former president of the Board of Education. Harris had managed to learn French, Spanish, and Italian, but he always regretted having missed formal schooling, and to his mind his most noteworthy feat had been persuading the Board of Education to set ujj a school for poor boys. This, the New York Free Academy, later became the City College of New York, now a part of the City University.
Men of forty-five do not usually start out afresh, but Harris’ mother had recently died and his home was broken up—he had never married. Furthermore, owing to the general business depression, the china-importing company on which he depended was at low water. Cossip had it that Townsend Harris was drinking too much. He quarrelled with a brother who was his partner and lived in England, selecting the china the company imported. But if Townsend Harris was on the way to becoming an alcoholic, he seems to have snapped out of it; no trace of such a weakness appears in his later career. He cut loose from New York in 1849 by acquiring part interest in a ship, and sailed for the Far East by way of California; there he bought over the whole ship and continued on his way.