- 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
After so much trembling anticipation, the reality must have been chilling. Shimoda was far from prepossessing—a forlorn little town with an awkward harbor among stony hills. From the ship Townsend Harris sent letters, one to the governor of Shimoda and another addressed to the Minister of Foreign Affairs, an official title that did not yet exist, as a matter of fact, but he didn’t know that. A rather disheartening silence was the result, but at least a pilot came out and , led in the San Jacinto , and then, after quite a wait, some Japanese came out to the ship to greet him. Though courteous, they were vague. They said that the governor was ill, and they couldn’t tell Harris anything about the house he was expecting to be ready for him. After a few days of diplomatic maneuvers, the American discovered that the Japanese really had been taken by surprise when Harris appeared, for the treaty clause regarding the formal establishment of diplomatic relations had been mistranslated; they understood it to mean that a consul general should live in Japan if both nations wished it, and not, as the original version had it, either nation. The Japanese were plunged into dismayed confusion by his presence, and since they could never move a finger without directions from higher up, they posted off urgent demands for orders from Yedo. Until the reply arrived they could do nothing but their naïve best to discourage the American and somehow get him to go away. Surely he didn’t really want to live in Japan, they said anxiously. Really, he wouldn’t care at all for Shimoda, ruined as it was by the great earthquake of the previous year. Still less would he care for Yedo, they assured him. Like Shimoda, it was in ruins.
“The foregoing is the substance of their remarks and propositions, made and renewed and changed in every possible form and manner during three mortal hours,” Harris noted. “I need hardly write that I courteously but firmly negatived all their propositions.” After Siam it came to him as second nature to handle the situation. He didn’t swagger or bellow or make outright demands, but he wouldn’t give way, and he must have made a good impression in spite of everything. But making a good impression was not enough, and during the months that followed he had to summon all his reserves of courtesy and firmness. Still, he persevered. In spite of all the delays the Japanese could think of, he finally moved ashore into a temple they reluctantly prepared as a residence for him, and put up a flagstaff with the Stars and Stripes. Time after time the Japanese would “civilly ask me to go away”; each time, just as civilly, he refused. Every so often he proposed sending a message direct to the Tycoon, or Shogun, at Yedo, a gambit that never failed to send the officials into fits of mingled embarrassment and fear. That was not the way business was done in Japan, he gathered. For the time being, Harris had to be content with writing more letters and trusting that his unwilling hosts would send them on to the Tycoon. When he had settled in ashore, the San Jacinto sailed away, Armstrong promising him that they would call in again in six months. Harris and Heusken were on their own in Japan.
Perhaps it could have been worse; there is no doubt that it could have been better. A drawing by Heusken gives an idea of the bleak landscape the two men saw from their front door—sharp peaks against the sky, and the hillsides empty of anything cozy or familiar to their Western eyes. “Every inch of ground is cultivated, as the ground is very [rolling], rising up in pinnacles of lava or indurated clay ejected from volcanoes, and so steep as not to be arable,” wrote Harris in his journal. “… The views … present a series of serrated hills rising up to fifteen hundred feet high—most of which are covered with fir, spruce, and cedar trees.” He was not long in planting such vegetables as he had brought seeds for. He also set up a pigeon cote for the four pairs of birds that had come with him, but most of all he and Heusken were busy trying to make the temple into a residence rather than a mere camping-out place. Japanese temples are simplicity itself, fragile and scarcely walled off from the elements. Harris’ house was drafty and cold. Life in it was a long battle against unwelcome guests such as mosquitoes— “ enormous in size”—crickets that sounded like a miniature locomotive at full speed; bats; an “enormous tête de mort spider; the legs extended five and a half inches as the insect stood”; and large rats “in numbers, running about the house.” The platoons of cockroaches that pestered him, he admitted ruefully, he had brought himself, though unwittingly, from the San Jacinto . All the other vermin were local.
Heusken never became a real companion. Harris often complained in his journal of the Dutchman’s laziness and lack of quick intelligence, though it must be admitted that two men plunged into such an existence were almost bound to get on each other’s nerves, no matter how pleasant they might both be.