MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
The assembled samurai and shogunate officials of the court of the Emperor Komei were captivated by the miniature locomotive, watching intently as the American engineers, Mr. Gay and Mr. Danby, spent the morning laying down its circular track on the Yokohama harborfront and attending to the Norris Works miniature locomotive. When the train’s boiler had finally been lit and the required pressure achieved, its resulting motion and accompanying clouds of steam were indeed a novel and thrilling sight. The Japanese onlookers were “unable to repress a shout of delight at each blast of the whistle.”
The train was a scale model, its carriages too small to accommodate even a child, but this was not going to cheat the samurai of their ride. Dressed in all their feudal finery, they “betook themselves to the roof,” sitting atop the carriages, robes billowing, swords held carefully at their sides, to experience this Western technological marvel as it lapped the 350-foot, 18-gauge track at speeds of up to 20 miles per hour.
The train was part of the famous historic exchange of gifts between Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry, envoy of President Fillmore of the United States, and the representatives of the Tokugawa shogunate, rulers of Japan, with Emperor Komei as the country’s symbolic head. As well as Perry’s own report, from which I quote, there is a splendidly evocative painting of the events of March 1854 by a Japanese witness to the event, a panel of twelve scenes depicting this seismic clash of civilizations, the very moment Japan commenced its turbulent journey to modernity.
On its first visit the previous summer, Perry’s fleet of so-called “Black Ships” had dropped anchor at Kurihama, south of Yokohama, just around the headland flanking the entrance to Tokyo Bay. Perry and his men were on an extraordinary mission: prize open a country that had been shut off to the world since the 1630s, a period known as sakoku, or “closed country.”
I had read of this “prizing open” of Japan many times. This term had always evoked dealing with a stuck kitchen drawer or an obstinate oyster, but why, and by what means, does a sailor from a far-off land unilaterally dictate an epochal shift in foreign policy to a sovereign nation without a single weapon being discharged in anger?
For the why, we need to go back to 1848. Mexico had lost its two-year war with the United States and would forfeit California, the final piece of the United States’ West-Coast puzzle, the Americans having relieved the British of Oregon a couple of years earlier. The United States now eyed the Pacific greedily. Beneath its waves there were whales galore, whose oil illuminated and lubricated the rapidly industrializing world and accounted for roughly 20 percent of the entire American economy at the time. But the more whales they harpooned—up to three thousand a year in the mid-1800s—the farther the Americans had to sail out into the Pacific. If they sailed far enough, the riches of China awaited: tea, silk, and porcelain, a trade upon which their great rival, the British, had grown rich over the past decades, with its colonies ranging from East India to Singapore and Hong Kong. America badly needed a foothold in this part of the world.
Looking in the other direction, to the east, the journey overland across America was now the shortest route between China and Europe, making the route “a highway for the world,” as one contemporary report put it. But there was a problem. On the same latitude as the whaling port of San Francisco, in the way of China and its riches, lay a two-thousand-mile-long, hitherto impenetrable barrier: the Japanese archipelago. Japan had been effectively closed to the world since Portuguese missionaries had excited the locals with their radical ideas and threatened the power of the ruling Tokugawa shogunate, the country’s feudal military government. Christianity had been banned, along with all potentially meddlesome foreigners, aside from a handful of docile Dutch traders on a couple of hectares of artificial land in Nagasaki Harbor, and the Chinese of course. Not to trade with China would have been unthinkable. Any Japanese who left the islands without official permission faced death upon their return. Any foreigner attempting to land on Japanese territory was summarily sent packing, if they were lucky.
In 1846, US commodore James Biddle had sailed close to the entrance of Tokyo Bay seeking contact with the Japanese authorities to ask permission for American whaling ships to refuel and repair in Japanese harbors. He suffered the indignity of being towed back out to sea by the Japanese. Russia’s attempts to make contact had been similarly rebuffed. The other key Western powers—France and Germany—were also keenly aware that whomever had access to the harbors of Japan controlled the Pacific.
But the seas around Japan’s rocky coast were uncharted and notoriously dangerous, with treacherous currents and whirlpools. In 1848 the American whaler Lagoda had been wrecked off the coast of Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost main island, and its crew were imprisoned. Several had died during their incarceration and the rest had been forced to trample upon a crucifix to prove their rejection of Christianity. A US naval ship eventually arrived and persuaded the Japanese to release the survivors, but there was outrage in the American press at their treatment.
America’s response to the Lagoda incident and the snubbing of Commodore Biddle not only transformed relations between Japan and the West forever, but would eventually destabilize the long-established order in East Asia, with cataclysmic consequences that still reverberate today.
In July 1853, seeking to sort out the Japan problem once and for all, Commodore Perry’s fleet of four heavily armed ships sailed into Kurihama Bay on the Pacific coast of Japan. Japan was believed to be rich in minerals, particularly gold and copper, but also, vitally for the new steam-powered ships, it had coal.
I am here now, on the waterfront at Kurihama where Perry’s sailors first landed, staring out at the sea, trying to think big thoughts about nations and cultures, colonial legacies and the sands of time, but the modern world is conspiring against me. There is the young family trying their best to make the most of their out-of-season trip to the beach, digging doggedly in the chilly wet sand a few feet away; there is the “Fuck the Police” graffiti (quite unusual in Japan) on a fisherman’s hut over to my right; and blotting the horizon are a cement works and electricity towers. None of these is helping conjure the epochal moment when Perry sailed into this modest bay south of Tokyo and changed the world.
I turn away and walk across the road to a small park. There in the middle of the park is a large, gray rock, like one of Obelix’s menhirs, on a plinth with vertical white Japanese text on one side, and on the other, an English translation in an (I suppose) rather apt “Wild West”-style font:
THE FIRST ARRIVAL
AMBASSADOR FROM THE
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
WHO LANDED AT THIS PLACE
JULY 14, 1853.
A nearby plaque expands further:
ON JULY 8*, 1853, COMMODORE MATTHEW GALBRAITH PERRY, USN, COMMANDER-IN-CHIEF, THE UNITED STATES NAVAL FORCES EAST INDIA, CHINA AND JAPAN SEAS, WHO ANCHORED OFFING OF URAGA, LANDED HERE AT KURIHAMA BEACH AND DELIVERED THE LETTER OF PRESIDENT FILMORE [SIC] TO THE THEN JAPANESE GOVERNMENT. NEXT YEAR, THE US JAPAN TREATY OF PEACE AND AMITY HAD BEEN CONCLUDED AT KANAGAWA. SUCH SERIES OF EVENTS BECAME MOTIVE POWER TO BRING BACK JAPAN, WHO UNILATERALLY SHUT ITS DIPLOMATIC DOOR TO OTHER COUNTRIES BY THE THEN JAPANESE GOVERNMENT, TO THE WORLD.
(*PERRY HAD TO WAIT A LITTLE BEFORE COMING ASHORE).
I have come to Kurihama because I am looking for a place to start my journey, somewhere with historical resonance, and to me, at least at this stage of my trip around the region, the moment when the Americans muscled their way into Japan seems the most resonant of them all.
When Perry sailed into Kurihama, he inadvertently set off a chain of events that would result in the complete inversion of the Confucian geopolitical hierarchy that had held in the region for most of the last two millennia. China had been the Middle Kingdom, font of all knowledge, technology, and civilization; Korea was the primary tributary land, the middle sibling, and Japan the vaguely barbaric little brother, but the trauma of the Black Ships’ arrival lit the fuse for a quasi-revolution in Japan. What followed was rapid modernization and militarization of Japan, leading ultimately to a catastrophic attempt to build an empire based on the Western model.
The arrival of the Black Ships was the nineteenth-century equivalent of one of those alien invasion movies in which colossal spacecraft blot out the sun. Perry’s squadron weighed anchor with “guns placed in position and shotted, the ammunition arranged, the small arms made ready, sentinels and men at their posts, and, in short, all the preparations made, usual before meeting an enemy.” The Japanese were shaken to their foundations by the towering ships, up to forty times the size of Japanese vessels, belching diabolical smoke with cannons bristling on their flanks. With their outdated matchlocks and spears, they could only stand impotently by as Perry delivered what he described as a “manly, yet respectful” letter from the thirteenth president of the United States to the emperor of Japan.1
The Japanese had been warned by the Dutch that the Americans were on their way and, via a mixture of French, Dutch, and Chinese, quickly informed Perry that he must leave, or at least go to Nagasaki at the far southwestern end of the country, a safe distance from Edo (Tokyo), where they had bureaucrats in place for negotiating with foreigners. Perry refused. He was prepared to wait. Talks continued about how and where the president’s letter would be handed over and a response given from the emperor.
Almost a week later, following many bottles of brandy shared with the Japanese functionaries on board the Susquehanna (Perry notes that the Japanese’s “studied politeness” was employed as much between themselves as with their visitors), they had finally worked out the details of the negotiation, right down to whether the commodore would present the letter with his own hand to the Japanese commissioner; and, amid great ceremony, Perry, two hundred sailors, plus a marching band landed on the beach here in Kurihama and delivered the president’s letter to a Japanese official judged to be of equal standing to a commodore of the United States Navy.
To the accompanying letter, Perry added a threatening little postscript for the emperor:
Many of the largest ships-of-war destined to visit Japan have not yet arrived in these seas, though they are hourly expected; and the undersigned, as an evidence of his friendly intentions, has brought but four of the smaller ones, designing, should it become necessary, to return to Yedo [Edo] in the ensuing spring with a much larger force.
Having wintered in Okinawa, Perry returned to Kurihama in February 1854 to receive his answer from the emperor. He came with eight ships this time, and was rewarded with the greatest prize in international relations: a letter from the emperor promising “we shall entirely comply with the proposals of your government.”
The Japanese were all too aware of the fate that had befallen the Chinese at the hands of the English navy, resulting in the loss of Hong Kong in 1842, and capitulated, giving US ships permission to begin to visit Shimoda (south of Tokyo) and Hakodate, in Hokkaido, and for a US consul to take up residence in both ports. Shipwrecked sailors would be treated hospitably and American ships would be allowed to buy supplies. On March 31, 1854, Perry signed the Treaty of Kanagawa to this effect, celebrated on shore with a show of strength by sumo wrestlers (“twenty-five masses of fat,” according to Perry), a gift of hundreds of sacks of rice from the Japanese, a minstrel performance by the American sailors, and the aforementioned miniature steam locomotive.
As Perry later wrote, “The vigorous grasp of the hand of America, which was proffered in a friendly spirit, but thrust forward with an energy that proved the power to strike, as well as the disposition to embrace, had stirred Japanese isolation into a sensibility of its relationship to the rest of the world.”
Japan was indeed opened, but it was also humiliated; its sense of itself had been thoroughly undermined and its short-term future plunged into uncertainty. The Tokugawa government had caved at the merest hint of military threat, but Perry’s initial treaty was just the start. In 1858 another treaty permitted the Americans to set up consulates in several Japanese ports with their own jurisdiction under US law; to set trade terms favorable to the Americans; and to worship as Christians on Japanese soil, the first time this had been allowed in three centuries. Within several years, the English, French, Dutch, and Russians had also signed similar “unequal treaties” imposing their terms on Japan, with Yokohama emerging as the largest center for foreign trade.
The foreigners’ extraterritoriality, meaning that they were not subject to Japanese law or its courts, would lead to various abuses and conflicts. As the British diplomat C. Pemberton Hodgson wrote of Japan in the 1860s: “Insults, threats, words of doubtful celebrity, met the quiet and wonder-struck Japanese as often as they endeavored to pacify their indignant guests.” Japan was traumatized and divided by the arrival of the barbarian foreigners. One faction advocated the violent removal of this alien presence, and there were several attacks on foreigners in the early 1860s. In 1862, in Yokohama, samurai of the Satsuma clan (a notoriously fighty bunch from Kyushu) killed a British merchant, C. L. Richardson, when he refused to dismount his horse and show them due respect. In retaliation, the British bombarded Kagoshima, at the heart of the Satsumas’ territory in far southwestern Japan, forcing them to pay compensation.
Copyright © 2020 by Michael Booth