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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
He thought the commissioners were talking nonsense when they expressed anxiety for his personal safety at Yedo. In vain they told him of the dangers he was running from hot-headed reactionaries of the ronin class, those bullies who carried arms and had nothing to occupy their time. Harris listened skeptically when his champions told him that a plot against him had been discovered, and that three ronin sworn to assassinate him had been apprehended. A large body of men now patrolled his neighborhood, said a friendly prince, and guarded his house night and day. But Harris pooh-poohed it all as a trick.
Time after time the negotiations were held up, but they really struck a rock over Harris’ demand that Japan open three more ports in addition to Shimoda and Hakodate. He pointed out that none of the open ports would be on the west coast, but the Japanese, though willing to alter a few of the arrangements they had agreed to, remained obdurate on this, and he had to give up. Again, when he suggested that Americans be allowed to reside in Kyoto, he struck a sensitive nerve. Plainly, the commissioners were shocked. Kyoto was where the Emperor lived, and was a religious stronghold. Any attempt to open it to foreign residents would excite a rebellion. Very well, said Harris, then how about Osaka? The arguments droned on.
But all the while, in China, the Westerners were pursuing their war and making headway. The Japanese were aware of this—more so, indeed, than Townsend Harris, and the knowledge had a strong influence on their dealings with him. Even so, the conservatives still insisted that the whole idea be scrapped, some nobles announcing with passionate conviction that they would rather die fighting than give in to the West and open up the country. “I am told the Prince of Ca-ga goes on like a lunatic about the Treaty,” wrote Harris, but he was also told that the Tycoon was in favor of it, saying he was convinced it was for the good of the country, as well he might, for the Western allies were now preparing to move north to Tientsin.
It was often said that Townsend Harris’ greatest accomplishment in winning the treaty was that he did the whole thing by peaceful negotiation, without the help of armed forces. Americans said they were proud of him because he showed the world how much better was their national way of doing things than that of the “brutal” British. This is perhaps oversimplified. Harris did behave well. He was a peaceable man by nature. He showed remarkable willingness to accept the customs and appreciate the philosophy of an alien civilization. He was a good man, and the Japanese realized it, and gave him his due for probity and courage. But he did have help from armed forces, for he was supported by the threat of what was going on in China, and there were times when, pushed to extremes, he consciously used that strength by hinting of similar action in Japan if he failed in his mission.
They were delicate hints, but they sufficed. When Harris returned to Shimoda in March, the treaty was complete. Its ratification was delayed by a political struggle between the conservatives and the progressive faction at the Shogun’s court, with both groups seeking the support of the Mikado. The Emperor sided with the conservatives, thus weakening the Shogun’s position significantly; nevertheless the progressives pushed through the ratification of the treaty.
Now that his task was over, Townsend Harris fell so ill that he nearly died. For days he was delirious, and the Japanese at Yedo were very much concerned. At the Shogun’s behest they sent the best doctors in town, who had orders to cure the American, or else. Harris was showered with messages and gifts. By the time he had fooled everyone and recovered, news had arrived at last that Washington knew what he had done and thought highly of him for it. Early in 1859 he was promoted to the rank of Minister Resident and moved to Yedo, where his colleagues from other Western nations joined him in forming a diplomatic corps. It was not an easy life; the resentment felt by much of the population for foreigners was not a mere figment of imagination, as Harris had thought, and ronin roamed the streets at night, hoping for the chance to kill a Westerner. In eighteen months seven assassinations of that sort took place.