- 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
I shall … be accompanied by Mr. Heusken and my two Japanese house servants. … My own train will consist of some forty porters bearing my luggage, cooking utensils, bedding, etc., etc., and by the following, who will all have the arms of the United States on their dresses, as the coat-of-arms is worn by the Japanese,— viz. ,
All except the grooms and norimon bearers are to have silk dresses. I am to be attended by the Vice-Governor of Shimoda, the Mayor of Kakizaki, the Commissary of Shimoda, and by the private secretary of Dewa-no-Kami. They will have, together, a tail of some one hundred and fifty or more men, so that the whole train will form a body of not far from two hundred and fifty.
In fact there were one hundred more than that.
On November 23 the cavalcade started out in all its splendor. A Japanese captain rode ahead as avantcourier, with three boys walking ahead of him, each carrying a bamboo rod with fluttering strips of paper at the tip, calling out in Japanese as they walked, “Sit down, sit down!” They sounded quite musical, said Harris. Next came the United States flag and two of Harris’ guards; then Harris on horseback with six guards, followed by his norimon , a famous chair that he had ordered made extra-large to accommodate his long Western legs, and the norimon ’s bearers; then his bedding and clothes packages, along with presents for the Court. Next came Heusken riding his horse, then his attendants, and so on. The Japanese followed with their own trains. Everything was very splendid and beautiful. Even Harris’ packages were dressed up, with a tiny bamboo staff standing on each, a pennon fluttering from it.
They moved slowly, but Yedo was not really far away, and within a few days they had arrived. Harris learned, just in time to avoid committing a solecism, that Japanese nobles never entered the city on horseback. He had rather expected to cut a fine figure on his horse—both he and Heusken were much admired in Shimoda for their horsemanship—but if it wasn’t done, it wasn’t, and he and the Dutchman prudently scrambled into their norimons before passing through the city gate.
The days that followed were full of quaint ceremony and courtesy. For instance, Harris was served his meals on a tray with legs—a small, Japanese-type table—but the legs were longer than most, so that his food was higher in the air than that of ordinary people. On December 7 he had an audience with the Tycoon. It was purely formal. The American stood upright in the presence of the Tycoon, though all the other men in the room were down on their knees. He was a little surprised at the severe plainness of the ruler’s dress, but admitted that he could not see the Shogun’s elaborate headdress properly, owing to the fact that he was standing up and the Shogun was seated within a cubicle, the roof of which cut off Harris’ view.
Even getting to Yedo had been a remarkable feat, especially for a man in ill health like Townsend Harris. But his work had only begun. There was still the formal treaty to draw up. Harris therefore remained in Yedo, and had discussions every day with the men who had been nominated to handle the matter. Ultimately their group was boiled down to two commissioners. Here, at the hub of their universe, he could see for himself some of the difficulties he had only heard of, sketchily, in Shimoda. It became evident that the nobles were divided on this matter of trading with the world outside. One group saw the way things were inevitably going and had resigned themselves to change, but other, die-hard princes fought the treaty fiercely all the way. Even the willing ones had to learn everything from the beginning.
For one thing, he had to tell them very clearly and simply why trade was a good thing for the common people of a country, and how it affected a nation’s economy. The nobles were not trained to think in terms of change; they resisted the concept almost instinctively. Having been convinced of the desirability of commercial expansion—if they ever were convinced of it, which is doubtful—they had next to learn the workings of trade. For days Harris wrangled over one point: the Japanese wanted to insert in the treaty a clause forbidding Americans to live in Yedo or even to spend a night there. Where were they to live then, asked Harris? Why, in Kanagawa, said the commissioners. But Kanagawa was more than eighteen miles from Yedo, which meant that an American wishing to do business would have to ride more than thirty-seven miles a day. Harris explained that this was impossible. He explained it over and over, but his hearers took a lot of persuading. There were also arguments about open harbors, tariffs, currency regulations—a list of difficulties that seemed endless. Harris had to argue for days before they would give him a map of Yedo, which he had to promise never to give away or even permit to be copied. And the donors were the friendly nobles.