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A Yankee Barbarian At The Shogun’s Court

May 2024
30min read

Spies and assassins stalked our first consul to Japan, his hosts bluntly told him to leave, and his own government neglected him

In 1853 an American named Townsend Harris, a merchant who was spending most of his time that year between Hong Kong and Shanghai, pricked up his ears at the news that his government was planning to force a way into Japan. Harris was no longer young, and his business in the Far East had lately been so bad that he had been forced to sell his trading vessel. Consequently, he felt the strain of uncertainty, and wondered if there might not be a place for him on Commodore Perry’s staff. He wrote and offered his services, but Perry wouldn’t consider adding him to the force. Like many other civilians who wrote to the Commodore, he was turned down. His opportunity was to come, but that would be later.

Harris was only one of many people living under a strain. The Japanese too were badly worried, though few outside their tight little islands realized it. They were not supposed to be aware even that the Perry expedition was in preparation, but they knew more about the outside world than the world could have guessed, especially about the way things were going for their neighbor, China. Like the Chinese, the Japanese believed firmly in the policy of isolation. As an island empire, Japan naturally found it easier to carry out this policy. Besides, as a smaller country she wasn’t apt to tempt imperialists quite as strongly. Only the Dutch, of all the eager European traders, had been successful in gaining a foothold in Japan. Even so, they were kept immured on the little island of Deshima, off Nagasaki, where they had to live without their wives and families; they were forbidden to set foot on the main islands.

The Chinese had tried to take just as high a hand with foreign merchants, but they hadn’t got away with it. It is true that for years the British, American, French, and other “barbarians” were forced to keep to their allotted space in “factories” outside the walls of Canton, but they were getting out of hand, and for several years had been troublesome. Led by the British, they had fought the Chinese, gravely shaking the old order. The barbarians now had footholds in various ports along the coast, and were constantly trying to get into the interior, a state of affairs shocking not only to China but to her near neighbor, Japan. Yedo—modern Tokyo—as well as Peking was concerned when the British demanded audience of the Emperor of China. Yedo knew that the barbarians would certainly soon cast their covetous eyes further.

And now it was on the verge of happening. Only one thing had not been foreseen in Japan—that America, rather than Britain, would be the intruder. Usually it was the British who took the offensive, but in iHßg they considered themselves too seriously enmeshed in China to branch out in a new direction. Meanwhile the Americans, who had recently fulfilled their “manifest destiny” and consolidated their hold upon their own Pacific coast, were looking for new, commercially profitable outlets for their expansive spirit.

So Commodore Perry sailed into Yedo Bay, and lie was unimpeded. Fortunately for the Japanese, when the thing happened at last they were too stunned to offer resistance, and no bloodshed resulted. Perry realized he was breaking into a world that had withstood encroachment for more than two centuries, and he was tactful. He managed to handle everything without violence, emerging in 1854 with the preliminary Treaty of Kanagawa. What he did not bring out with him was a full understanding of the situation regarding Japan’s governing body, but this was no wonder: its complexity takes a long time to appreciate.


Early in the seventeenth century, the emperor had been supplanted in power, but not actually in name, by chieftains, called shoguns, of the Tokugawa clan. They ruled the country from Yedo. The imperial dynasty survived, but more as a figurehead; the emperor lived in Kyoto and was revered as a religious symbol, but it was the shogun who really ran the country. The subtlety of this arrangement was difficult for any Westerner to grasp, and Perry made the mistake of considering the emperor, or mikado, a nonentity. Certainly the shogunate imposed on the people a pervasive regimentation, but nothing human is completely biddable, and there were occasional waves of dissidence in Japan. Among the ruling classes, even in Yedo, some nobles harbored a secret, deep-seated loyalty to the mikado.

Perry also overestimated the ignorance of the Japanese regarding the West. High-ranking Japanese knew a good deal more about the barbarian world than the barbarians knew of Japan. For years they had demanded Western books and newspapers from the Dutch at Deshima, and had made the merchants write them annual reports about the world outside. Of course, when the time came and they had to deal with foreigners, it suited them to pretend complete ignorance. Ignorance furnished a wonderful excuse for delay, deceit, and rudeness, but they usually knew quite a lot more than they admitted. A case in point is the famous miniature railway brought by Commodore Perry as a present to the Japanese. Obligingly, his hosts gazed in wonder and delight as it was demonstrated for them, and Perry fell like a combination Santa Claus and conjurer. Yet the court had really known about the railway all the time. The courtiers kept up with the Illustrated London News —the Shogun was a regular subscriber—which had carried the story, complete with pictures, while the expedition was fitting out.

Perry’s American soul would have abhorred any suggestion that the expedition’s aim was to acquire territory. He had large plans of a different sort and hoped that the Treaty of Kanagawa would be the beginning of much more maritime commerce for America in the Pacific. It was not merely a question, he felt, of persuading the Japanese to treat castaways nicely and permit foreign ships to refuel and provision at their ports. The United States should aim at something much more ambitious, at “establishing a foothold in this quarter of the globe,” wrote Perry hopefully, “as a measure of positive necessity in the sustainment of our maritime rights in the east.” For a start, he suggested, Americans might settle on the Bonins, the Ryukyus, and Formosa.

But the American administration was not carried along on the wave of Perry’s enthusiasm. There was still much undeveloped territory within the boundaries of the United States; Washington saw no reason to take on responsibilities in such remote regions. Naturally, however, American merchants in the East were of Perry’s way of thinking. One clause in the Treaty of Kanagawa caught their attention: it provided that an American consul general tor Japan be appointed to live there in a little port town called Shimoda, less than a hundred miles from Yedo. Though they knew nothing about Shimoda, the merchants felt that much depended on the man who got the job. They didn’t want some rank amateur from Washington; this consul general should be someone familiar with their particular problems. There was ample time to discuss the matter, for the consulate was not to open until at least eighteen months alter the treaty was concluded in March, 1854.

In the meantime, each of the other Western nations—Great Britain, Holland, and Russia—hurried to draw up preliminary conventions, as such first documents were called, and none had found it easy. The Japanese evinced such strong reluctance to admit facts that were obvious, backed down so consistently on agreements, and dragged their feet so often, that the foreigners became indignant and watchful. Clearly, the man who became the first American consul at Shimoda would have no easy task.

Townsend Harris was not born into a privileged class, and he was self-educated, having wrested his knowledge from books in the time he could spare from making a living. He went to work in a New York shop at the age of thirteen, but when he left New York for the Orient in 1849, at the age of forty-five, he was a leading citizen—a member of the Chamber of Commerce and former president of the Board of Education. Harris had managed to learn French, Spanish, and Italian, but he always regretted having missed formal schooling, and to his mind his most noteworthy feat had been persuading the Board of Education to set ujj a school for poor boys. This, the New York Free Academy, later became the City College of New York, now a part of the City University.

Men of forty-five do not usually start out afresh, but Harris’ mother had recently died and his home was broken up—he had never married. Furthermore, owing to the general business depression, the china-importing company on which he depended was at low water. Cossip had it that Townsend Harris was drinking too much. He quarrelled with a brother who was his partner and lived in England, selecting the china the company imported. But if Townsend Harris was on the way to becoming an alcoholic, he seems to have snapped out of it; no trace of such a weakness appears in his later career. He cut loose from New York in 1849 by acquiring part interest in a ship, and sailed for the Far East by way of California; there he bought over the whole ship and continued on his way.

For several years, trading in an easygoing manner, Harris wandered about the East—the Philippines, the Malay Peninsula, India, Hong Kong, and such China ports as were open to foreigners, making many friends among Western merchants and diplomats as he went. But Eastern trade too was subject to depressions, especially at this time, when the Chinese were resisting the attempts of the Western barbarians to penetrate the country in order to buy and sell. After a few years of doing well enough, Harris found himself hard up. In 1853, casting about for a change, he sent his name to Washington as candidate for an American consular post either at Hong Kong or Canton: both places, as he knew, happened to be vacant. Letters took months to arrive, however, and Harris was still waiting for a reply when he heard about Perry’s expedition and unsuccessfully tried to join it. In spite of the rejection, Perry may have retained a good impression of Harris. There is an unsubstantiated story that the Commodore later put in a good word for him in Washington, when the selection of a man for Shimoda was being made.

In the meantime Harris was again disappointed, however, for when the reply to his consular application arrived from Washington, he found he had been given Ningpo instead of Canton or Hong Kong. Ningpo was a small post with a wretched salary. Before turning it down, Harris was able to read the newly published Treaty of Kanagawa made with Japan by Perry. Since a consulate general was to be established in Shimoda, he reflected, why shouldn’t he be the consul there? He asked around among his local friends, and got in touch with old acquaintances in America. They all promised to support him, so he hurried home to press the application in person.

One of his New York friends, John J. Cisco, wrote to Secretary of State William L. Marcy, and to President Pierce, saying that Townsend Harris was a “sound, reliable and influential Democrat.” Pierce and Marcy hesitated. Perhaps they had been told, by men supporting other candidates, of Harris’ temporary lapse from grace and sobriety back in 1849, but *n tne end it all worked out well. Harris was interviewed by both officials, got the appointment, and in October, 1855, set out for Shimoda with orders to negotiate a full-fledged commercial treaty. On the way, however, he made a side trip to Siam, for he had been directed to renegotiate an existing commercial treaty with King Mongkut.

Harris was at first amicably disposed toward the native officials in Siam. Yet before he left Bangkok his sympathy with the Siamese evaporated. He found the ministers, in his own words, tricky, venal, and untruthful. Harris had to be patient yet stubborn, feeling his way, guessing when it was time to show righteous anger and when it was better to take it all in silence. He had a talent for this sort of thing, an instinctive understanding of psychology, and a genuine interest in the customs and philosophies of unfamiliar cultures. But his health was not strong, and before he had completed the Siamese mission he was very irritable. When the treaty had at last been hammered out he wrote, “I hope this is the end of my troubles with this false, base and cowardly people. To lie is here the rule from the Kings downward. Truth is never used when they can avoid it. A nation of slaves … I never met a people like them. … The proper way to negotiate with the Siamese is to send two or three men-of-war. …”

On June 1, 1856, having accomplished his assignment in Siam, Harris left for Japan. He took along Henry C. J. Heusken, a Dutch-American whom he had hired in New York, for he expected that Heusken’s command of Japanese and Dutch—which language the Japanese used for all diplomatic exchanges with Westerners—would prove indispensable to his success. The San Jacinto , Commodore Armstrong aboard, which had already taken Harris on his errand to Siam, carried them, and after a troublesome voyage of nine days they anchored outside Shimoda Harbor on August 21, 1856. “My future brought vividly to mind,” Harris wrote at his first sight of Japanese territory. “Mental and social isolation on the one hand, and on the other are important public duties. … A people almost unknown to the world is to be examined and reported on in its social, moral and political state; the productions of the country … to be ascertained; the products of the industry of the country found out, and its capacity for commercial intercourse. … A new and difficult language to be learned.” On the next day: “I shall be the first recognized agent from a civilized power to reside in Japan … I hope I may so conduct myself that I may have honorable mention in the histories which will be written on Japan and its future destiny.”

After so much trembling anticipation, the reality must have been chilling. Shimoda was far from prepossessing—a forlorn little town with an awkward harbor among stony hills. From the ship Townsend Harris sent letters, one to the governor of Shimoda and another addressed to the Minister of Foreign Affairs, an official title that did not yet exist, as a matter of fact, but he didn’t know that. A rather disheartening silence was the result, but at least a pilot came out and , led in the San Jacinto , and then, after quite a wait, some Japanese came out to the ship to greet him. Though courteous, they were vague. They said that the governor was ill, and they couldn’t tell Harris anything about the house he was expecting to be ready for him. After a few days of diplomatic maneuvers, the American discovered that the Japanese really had been taken by surprise when Harris appeared, for the treaty clause regarding the formal establishment of diplomatic relations had been mistranslated; they understood it to mean that a consul general should live in Japan if both nations wished it, and not, as the original version had it, either nation. The Japanese were plunged into dismayed confusion by his presence, and since they could never move a finger without directions from higher up, they posted off urgent demands for orders from Yedo. Until the reply arrived they could do nothing but their naïve best to discourage the American and somehow get him to go away. Surely he didn’t really want to live in Japan, they said anxiously. Really, he wouldn’t care at all for Shimoda, ruined as it was by the great earthquake of the previous year. Still less would he care for Yedo, they assured him. Like Shimoda, it was in ruins.

“The foregoing is the substance of their remarks and propositions, made and renewed and changed in every possible form and manner during three mortal hours,” Harris noted. “I need hardly write that I courteously but firmly negatived all their propositions.” After Siam it came to him as second nature to handle the situation. He didn’t swagger or bellow or make outright demands, but he wouldn’t give way, and he must have made a good impression in spite of everything. But making a good impression was not enough, and during the months that followed he had to summon all his reserves of courtesy and firmness. Still, he persevered. In spite of all the delays the Japanese could think of, he finally moved ashore into a temple they reluctantly prepared as a residence for him, and put up a flagstaff with the Stars and Stripes. Time after time the Japanese would “civilly ask me to go away”; each time, just as civilly, he refused. Every so often he proposed sending a message direct to the Tycoon, or Shogun, at Yedo, a gambit that never failed to send the officials into fits of mingled embarrassment and fear. That was not the way business was done in Japan, he gathered. For the time being, Harris had to be content with writing more letters and trusting that his unwilling hosts would send them on to the Tycoon. When he had settled in ashore, the San Jacinto sailed away, Armstrong promising him that they would call in again in six months. Harris and Heusken were on their own in Japan.

Perhaps it could have been worse; there is no doubt that it could have been better. A drawing by Heusken gives an idea of the bleak landscape the two men saw from their front door—sharp peaks against the sky, and the hillsides empty of anything cozy or familiar to their Western eyes. “Every inch of ground is cultivated, as the ground is very [rolling], rising up in pinnacles of lava or indurated clay ejected from volcanoes, and so steep as not to be arable,” wrote Harris in his journal. “… The views … present a series of serrated hills rising up to fifteen hundred feet high—most of which are covered with fir, spruce, and cedar trees.” He was not long in planting such vegetables as he had brought seeds for. He also set up a pigeon cote for the four pairs of birds that had come with him, but most of all he and Heusken were busy trying to make the temple into a residence rather than a mere camping-out place. Japanese temples are simplicity itself, fragile and scarcely walled off from the elements. Harris’ house was drafty and cold. Life in it was a long battle against unwelcome guests such as mosquitoes— “ enormous in size”—crickets that sounded like a miniature locomotive at full speed; bats; an “enormous tête de mort spider; the legs extended five and a half inches as the insect stood”; and large rats “in numbers, running about the house.” The platoons of cockroaches that pestered him, he admitted ruefully, he had brought himself, though unwittingly, from the San Jacinto . All the other vermin were local.


Heusken never became a real companion. Harris often complained in his journal of the Dutchman’s laziness and lack of quick intelligence, though it must be admitted that two men plunged into such an existence were almost bound to get on each other’s nerves, no matter how pleasant they might both be.

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.”

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.

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.

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.

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.

One night in January, 1861, Heusken, now serving as interpreter for the American legation, was going home on foot in the dark, and was set upon and murdered. There was great outcry from the Western diplomatic staffs, but Townsend Harris refused to join it. Cool and reasonable, he declared it was Heusken’s own fault for ignoring the rules of common sense. He himself, said Harris, never walked in Yedo after dark, and Mr. Heusken should have known better. The consequent indignation of his brother diplomats can be imagined. At best, feeling runs high in a small community like theirs that considers itself in danger from surrounding natives, and they were already jealous of their doyen because he obviously enjoyed the esteem of the Japanese. Sir Rutherford Alcock, the British minister, was especially incensed when the American pronounced himself satisfied by the indemnity of $10,000 paid by the Japanese to Heusken’s mother. Harris should have asked for more, said Alcock, who put the rates for assassinated Britons at anything from $20,000 to $50,000, and later pushed the ante up to £10,000 in gold when one of his officials was murdered.

After the death of Heusken the diplomats demanded that the Shogun’s people guarantee their safety by enforcing tighter security measures, and they moved out of Yedo until the guarantee was received. Only Townsend Harris refused to leave. His colleagues were even more angry when they found that he had, on the other hand, suggested that the Westerners should waive their right to live in Yedo as from the first of 1862. He must have realized the truth, that the authorities could not hold down the people no matter how many guarantees of security they might give, but the other foreigners would not believe it. That July, in 1861, a band of fourteen ronin attacked the British legation, and about a year later another mob attacked again and burned it down. The British built a new one, but in February of 1863, after Harris had gone home from Japan, the ronin burned that one too, and later did the same to the American legation, at which point the diplomatic corps gave up for good and moved to Yokohama. But all that came later.

Rutherford Alcock implied that Townsend Harris toadied to the Japanese, but the American’s attitude is easy to understand. He thought the soft approach better, that was all. He would never have called himself a saber-rattler, and probably preferred to dismiss the occasions when he had been guilty of a rattle or two as of no importance. In any case, he did not have much more time to annoy Sir Rutherford. Word arrived that Lincoln had been elected President in 1860, and Townsend Harris, that staunch Democrat, would not serve under a Republican. In July of ’61 he handed in his resignation, and as soon as his successor, Robert H. Pruyn, arrived the following year, Townsend Harris went home to New York.

For the rest of his life he stayed there, though he took an occasional trip—to Europe with his nephew Brander Matthews, and to Florida once or twice. Almost every day in New York he went to the Union Club at the corner of Twenty-second Street and Fifth Avenue. He didn’t die until 1878, so he must have seen what Alcock said about him in the book The Capital of the Tycoon , because that was published in 1863. “The thoroughgoing and clear-headed American,” Alcock called him with manifest self-control that slipped a few pages later when the writer referred to Harris’ methods of negotiating his treaty. Harris had only to point to the British in China, said Alcock, to have his way on everything. “This was a veritable tour de maître , to use and turn to such account the belligerent allies, holding them in terrorum over the Japanese—and to do this in such a way that should give the United States all the benefit and the credit, without any of the cost of great expeditions;—while to Great Britain was left only the odium of a reputation at once bellicose and exigeant.”

Alcock could have saved his complaints. In the long run the United States ceded her position in Japan by default, and Britain was able to take over. By that time the country was altogether changed by revolution. The shogunate’s influence had begun to slip the moment Perry’s ships appeared in Yedo Bay, and soon after Townsend Harris went home, everything exploded. “Honor the Mikado and expel the barbarians!’ was the rallying cry of the rebels, and the unrest grew rapidly into all-out civil war. Hastily, Britain, Holland, and France sent ships to protect their nationals. The Shogun’s princes tried in vain to keep order, but in October of 1867 the last Tokugawa shogun fled his palace in Yedo, and the Imperial restoration soon followed. But the foreigners, and their great ships that had been the original cause of the whole debacle, remained.

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