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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
Little by little the Shimoda officials got used to the Consul General. Perhaps they even enjoyed his company. Certainly they appreciated the liquor he gave them when they called—the brandy, liqueurs, and champagne—but in their soft way they continued to oppose him, ignore his requests, and render him as uncomfortable as they dared. If cornered, they made specious excuses. A crisis arose when Harris attempted to hire two Japanese servants and found himself frustrated by delays, excuses, and new excuses that contradicted the old. In the Far East this is accepted as the ordinary courteous way of saying No, but Townsend Harris refused to accept it in that spirit. He reacted to barefaced lying in a simple, Western way. On one occasion he picked up the Japanese stove, or hibachi , that was doing its customary poor job of heating the room, and threw it violently against the wall. It was a gesture that shocked and scared the Japanese, and has lived on in Shimoda legend.
“Had a flare-up with the officials, who told me some egregious lies in answer to some requests I made,” he noted. “I told them plainly I knew they lied; that, if they wished me to have any confidence in them, they must always speak the truth … that to tell lies to me was treating me like a child. …”
Whether such pious exhortations had any moral effect on the hearers is a moot point, but they knew the Consul’s obvious anger could not in safety be ignored. The Japanese too were good psychologists; they knew they had gone far enough for the time being. Harris got his domestic help, but other difficulties sprang up, hydra-headed. His people couldn’t buy fruit for him in the market. He was getting nowhere in his attempt to fix the wildly unrealistic rate of exchange for Japanese currency. Worst of all was the presence in his compound of uniformed, armed men who had set up camp there and would not go away. The Japanese argued that they were merely protecting him; they were spies, Harris retorted, and must go.
Harris’ health suffered under the conditions in which he lived. He complained of “total loss of appetite, want of sleep and depression of spirits,” and decided that the root of the trouble was lack of exercise and too much smoking. Accordingly he stopped smoking and set out on long daily walks, up and down hill, literally taking in his stride as much as ten or twelve miles in a day. It is hard to say what ailed him. No doubt several maladies contributed to his final breakdown—malaria, dysentery, and other diseases common to the country—but that breakdown was still two years away. At one time his face turned bright red and he felt great discomfort; he finally decided that he was victim to St. Anthony’s fire, or erysipelas. In general, however, the trouble was with his stomach, and he attributed it to his inadequate diet.
To take his mind off himself and his irritation with Heusken and the Japanese, Harris walked and made notes of the countryside and its fauna and flora, which he later wrote up in the journal: descriptions of the terraces on the hillsides, planted with rice—the clay-and-wattle houses, so unlike the stone and brick buildings of his own country—the sudden terrible winds, one of which almost knocked over his temple, and destroyed a hundred houses in Shimoda—the mills, and springs, and quarries. “There are deer, wolves, hares and wild monkeys among the hills of this place,” he wrote on October 27, 1856. “I was much moved today on finding in the woods a bachelor’s button. This humble flower, with its sweet perfume, brought up so many home associations that I was inclined to be homesick— i.e. , miserable for the space of an hour. I am trying to learn Japanese.”
The natives were very clean, he observed; everyone bathed every day. Yet, like other Westerners, he was startled by the custom of mixed bathing “in a state of perfect nudity. I cannot account for so indelicate . a proceeding on the part of a people so generally correct. I am assured, however, that it is not considered as dangerous to the chastity of their females; on the contrary, they urge that this very exposure lessens the desire that owes much of its power to mystery and difficulty.”
The loneliness was relieved for a bit when, in November, Shimoda was visited by a Russian corvette come to bring a present of a schooner to the Shogun from Czar Alexander. Harris Was charmed with the officers. “Their dress was neat, and their address superior … They spoke French very well. I never passed a more agreeable evening.” Furthermore, they had opinions in which he heartily concurred. “They speak in high terms of French generals and soldiers. … The English, on the contrary, they put directly opposite: generals without skill, and men without one of the prerequisites of a soldier, except mere bull-dog courage; that to deprive an English army of its full supply of food and comfortable quarters is to demoralize it; that an English soldier dreads an attack on his belly more than a blow aimed at his head.”