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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
In March of 1857 an American ship stopped by, bringing a bit of mail and some newspapers of the previous November, from which Harris learned that James Buchanan was the new President. Months followed with no word at all from the outside world, until he became very uneasy. On May 5, he wrote: It is now eight months and three days since the San Jacinto left here. Commodore Armstrong promised me he would be here again in six months. I am a prey to unceasing anxiety. I have not heard a word from Washington since I left the United States, say October, 1855. What can be the cause of this prolonged absence of an American man-of-war? … I am only nine days distant from Hongkong, yet I am more isolated than any American official in any part of the world. … The absence of a man-of-war also tends to weaken my influence with the Japanese. They have yielded nothing except from fear .…
He did not know, of course, that the San Jacinto could not be spared from China at that time, since all available American craft were aiding the British in the capture of Canton. He wrote another passage in the same vein two weeks later. They were anxious days altogether, for the ice seemed to have cracked at last. One of the Shimoda officials opened proceedings by making a definite gesture toward discussing a preliminary commercial treaty, and many meetings followed at which Harris laid down the fundamental provisions of such a paper. He scarcely dared hope that all this would lead to a genuine agreement, but so it was. Quite suddenly, on June 8, he announced, “I have at last carried every point triumphantly with the Japanese, and have got everything conceded that I have been negotiating for since last September. Among my papers will be found a copy of the Convention. …” He lists the items briefly: Nagasaki was to be opened to American ships; Americans could reside permanently in Shimoda and Hakodate and could maintain a vice-consul at Hakodate; the currency exchange was settled at one third the rate Harris had hitherto paid; extraterritoriality was granted to Americans in’Japan; the consul general could go where he wished and was to be helped in various specified ways. It was, of course, merely the preliminary, not the firm treaty he hoped to negotiate in Yedo, but it had been a necessary step, and represented much toil and grief. Of course he wanted to notify Washington, but there was no way to do it, until, in September, an American ship appeared—the sloop Portsmouth from Shanghai, under the command of Captain Andrew Hull Foote.
But had the Portsmouth been sent on purpose to set Harris’ mind at rest? Not a bit of it. She was there, the Captain explained triumphantly, in spite of his . sailing orders; he had been told by Commodore Armstrong in Shanghai (in Shanghai? Why, that was only seven days away, reflected Townsend Harris angrily) not to go to Shimoda on any account. But the Captain had wanted to go, and had used “some medical ruse” as an excuse. The main drawback, of course, was that he hadn’t brought Mr. Harris’ mail, since he hadn’t known when he left Hong Kong that he would be coming to Shimoda. And he couldn’t stay a moment longer than was absolutely necessary. He was able to explain the San Jacinto ’s nonappearance, but Townsend Harris could still not bring himself to forgive Commodore Armstrong, who had, after all, found it possible to send ships to other ports, for other Americans, during that time.
All that consoled the Consul was that Captain Foote had reached Shimoda, where he could read the new convention with his own eyes and appreciate what Harris had done. He declared himself delighted. Everyone in the European community would be surprised and pleased with Harris, Foote said, as soon as he got back to Shanghai and told them. Then, after replenishing the consulate’s larder, which had been pretty well cleaned out for months, on September 12 he sailed away. Harris noted, “The visit of the ship has thrown me into a state of intense excitement, as may well be imagined. I have not had three hours of consecutive sleep since the signal was fired announcing her approach.”
However, fresh news kept Harris from brooding on his wrongs—the best news possible: Yedo had at last consented to receive him, and permit him to present his President’s letter to the Tycoon himself. He and Heusken were in a flurry of preparation and coaching from the Japanese. “The manner in which I am to salute the Ziogoon is to be the same as in the courts of Europe— i.e. , three bows. They made a faint request that I would prostrate myself and ‘knock-head,’ but I told them the mentioning of such a thing was offensive to me.” Harris’ refusal to kowtow could not have occasioned any real surprise in Japan. It was already well known that other Europeans were not so obliging in that respect as the Dutch, who for years had not jibbed at knocking their heads on the floor or even prostrating themselves before Japanese rulers, as long as they could go on trading.
Meticulously the Americans and the Japanese planned the details of the cavalcade and its itinerary. Harris would not take any of the Chinese servants he had brought with him from Hong Kong, he decided, since the Japanese hated the Chinese.