- 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 January, 1857, Harris decided to take a firmer line with his reluctant hosts. In small ways he had at last made some progress, but nothing whatever seemed to move toward the completion or even the initiation of his chief mission, the commercial treaty. Had his letters really been forwarded to Yedo at all? When needled, the Japanese blithely assured him that they had, and that a reply had arrived that very day. Unfortunately it soon became clear that it was a word-of-mouth reply, and Harris would have none of it. He had to have things in writing, he explained. As the interview became more acrimonious, Harris blew up. He did not have to simulate loss of temper: he was really very ill, and it was simply a matter of letting go. A number of old grievances came into the picture, too. Why were those spies still camping on his land? He’d had enough of it; he would write to his government about it. Why hadn’t justice yet been visited on that bully who accosted Mr. Heusken on the road and flourished a sword at him? And another thing, what about the currency rate? The Japanese tried to soothe him, speaking of friendliness: he scoffed bitterly. Pretty talk, when he had never yet been invited to one of their houses!
Flinging out of the Town Hall where the interview had taken place, the Consul General returned to his temple. Ordinarily he would have been appeased when he found the men in uniform really leaving at last, breaking up their camp quite hastily. But he was too angry to calm down. Next day he wrote at length to the Minister of Foreign Affairs—whoever might be doing that work—in Yedo, stating that it was imperative that they get started on the treaty, for Japan was threatened by another government, and even now it might be too late. It seems clear that he was thinking of Sir John Bowring and the British fleet in Hong Kong, which Sir John wanted to use against Japan, but Harris didn’t say so. Instead he repeated his warning, said that haste was of the essence, and ended by stating that he simply must go to Yedo soon in order to discuss this danger.
Again alarmed, the unhappy officials sent one of their number to Yedo, and when he came back it was obvious that the wind had changed. For one thing, he brought Harris a choice sword blade, which was a signal honor. For another, he invited the Consul General to his house for a meal, and at the lunch he did his best to make all allowances for foreign peculiarities. He had gone to considerable trouble to get chairs and tables. After the meal Townsend Harris made his first acquaintance with the tea ceremony. “The prettiest toy tea-making apparatus I ever saw,” he commented. It would have been perfect if the Japanese hadn’t begun to talk about sex. They would do this, and their attitude toward the subject always upset Harris.
The lubricity of these people passes belief. The moment business is over, the one and only subject on which they dare converse comes up. I was asked a hundred different questions about American females, as whether single women dressed differently from the married ones, etc., etc.; but I will not soil my paper with the greater part of them, but I clearly perceived that there are particulars that enter into Japanese marriage contracts that are disgusting beyond belief. Bingo-no-Kami informed me that one of the Vice-Governors was specially charged with the duty of supplying me with female society, and said if I fancied any woman the Vice-Governor would procure her for me, etc., etc., etc.
Perhaps Harris, in spite of his expressed abhorrence, took the vice-governor up on this offer. At least the Japanese firmly believed he did, and that he acquired a geisha named Okichi-San as a mistress. The story adds that Heusken got a girl too, and both women remained in the consulate for the rest of the time the Americans were there. No trace of this innovation can be found in the official records, which is natural even if the tale is true, but if it isn’t, Shimoda’s flourishing tourist industry today is founded on a whopping lie. Okichi is a heroine in song, story, and drama; visitors to Shimoda—which is still very uninteresting, apart from this aspect—are taken on a tour to see her birthplace and her tomb. At least five famous plays have been written about Okichi, and they are all tragedies. She is supposed to have suffered so much unpopularity among her own people because of her association with the American that she took to drink, and finally drowned herself. It is all very Japanese, but then, Okichi was a Japanese girl—that is. if she existed.∗
∗ In 1958 Hollywood, never averse to perpetuating a myth, particularly when romance is involved, made a movie based on this one: The Barbarian and the Geisha . It may still be seen from time to time on the Late—or Late Late—Show.— Ed.