This blog is the transcript of a presentation I have given on this topic, through Laneway Learning in Melbourne, Australia – http://melbourne.lanewaylearning.com The presentation includes fifty three images.
Following the failed Mongol attacks, Japan’s nominal ruler continued to be an emperor, residing with his court nobles at Kyoto (photo1,1a,1b). But the real power in Japan was still exercised by the shogun (photo1c), effectively a military dictator, who resided at Edo, subsequently renamed Tokyo
The shogun was supported in power by an elite samurai warrior class, numbering about two million nationwide (photos1d,1e,1f). Also, a set of rules and regulations was in place that strictly enforced the shogun’s national hold on power. Included in these were very severe restrictions on the movement of all citizens, preventing most from travelling anything more than short distances, and requiring the more powerful and wealthy to regularly travel to Edo as a sign of their obedience.
During this time sailors from other countries regularly landed on Japanese soil. Persistent attempts by the Europeans among them to convert the Japanese to Catholicism, and their tendency to engage in unfair trading practices, led Japanese authorities to expel most of them. At numerous times also, western missionaries were rounded up and executed. In fact it was the Spanish Jesuit Francis Xavier (photo1g) who introduced Christianity to Japan in the mid sixteenth century.
The main form of social organisation in Japan was feudalism (photos1h,1i), a system in which landholders received and held their lands from a person of superior status, in return for allegiance and performance of services. The person of superior status in any area was the shogun himself, or his provincial clan lords, called daimyo (photo1j).
When the Tokugawa Shogunate defeated all opposing feudal lords and took control of the nation in 1603, they took this practice of expelling foreigners a step further, by adopting a total isolationist policy, known as sakoku. As part of this policy, for the next two and a half centuries, Japan strictly limited trade access to only Dutch and Chinese ships. Apart from them, no other foreigners were allowed in, and no Japanese allowed out – punishable by death upon return. So, up to this point, this date of 1603 was one of the most important in Japanese history.
The Dutch were permitted to land a handful of ships each year, sometimes as few as one, at a location called Dejima, a small fan-shaped artificial island built in the bay of Nagasaki in 1634 (photos 2,2a,3). This island, of about 9000 square metres, or 2.2 acres, remained as the single place of direct trade and exchange between Japan and the outside world during the entire Edo period, the name given to the 265 year rule of the Tokugawas – because of the fact they were based in Edo.
The Dutch had enough political and military pull to make sure no other foreign nations were allowed to trade at all with Japan. For the Tokugawas, this policy helped them maintain the level of subjugation throughout Japan needed for them to remain in power. This position was enhanced by them having some say and control over the kinds of products brought into Japan by the Dutch, including any kind of weapons, the more advanced forms of which, as we have seen, were first introduced by the Mongols back in the latter thirteenth century.
Interestingly, after the Mongol threat subsided, firearms saw little use in Japan, the samurai still preferring the forms of warfare they were used to, with the emphasis on one-on-one combat, and samurai of the losing side often choosing to end their lives by ritual suicide. European weapons didn’t enter the country until the mid sixteenth century. This did stimulate some local small arms manufacturing, but mainly just at times of conflict during the remainder of this century.
Once internal fighting ceased, as it mostly did, with the ascendancy to power of the Tokugawas, in 1603, further development and military use of weapons also largely stopped, and wasn’t resumed until the tumultuous period of the 1850s, the topic of this second presentation.
In fact Japan did not produce its own internally developed service rifle until the late 1870s, with the Murata single shot rifle (photo3a).
With the control exerted over everyone by the Tokugawa shogunate (photo3b) through this period, the populace concentrated on developing their full range of skills other than war-mongering, which saw the arts and crafts, plus a limited range of local industries, such as silk manufacturing (photos3c,3d,3e), flourish and develop to a very high standard.
As can hence easily be understood, to have had no firearms industry all that time, instead concentrating on agriculture, artisan-made goods and cultural pursuits, meant Japan was far behind the West when Commodore Perry came knocking on the door, with his requests for the opening of the country that were backed up by some serious military hardware, far beyond anything the Japanese could even imagine. The weapons industry was just one example of the many industries in which Japan, after living in a time capsule for 260 years, was far behind the West, or simply didn’t possess at all.
During this period the country was shut, a number of trading nations found themselves inconvenienced, annoyed and aggrieved by a closed-shop Japan, particularly the United States. Mainly it wanted to use Japan as a “coaling base,” where coal-powered steamships could restock their coal supply. Japan was a perfect location for this because it was at almost the same latitude as San Francisco. The United States Navy already used Hawaii as a port for coaling, but they needed another port for steamships in the east.
The US also wanted an accessible Japan to make sure shipwrecked sailors, often whale hunting, got good treatment there (photos 4&5). Many such sailors had been treated harshly – in other words, they never made it back home. Another reason was for trade. The Americans were also driven by concepts of manifest destiny and the desire to impose the benefits of western civilization on what they perceived as “backward” Asian nations.
Commodore Matthew Perry
Perry (April 10, 1794 – March 4, 1858) was a member of the United States Navy. Early in his career as a seaman he had been involved in skirmishes during the 1812 war with the British. Rising through the ranks, he received his own command, and in 1822 it was his vessel that sailed to Key West, and planted the US flag to claim this as United States territory. He also commanded ships during the Mexican–American War of 1846-48, including the USS Mississippi (Photo 6).
Perry had a strong interest in naval education, supporting an apprentice system to train new seamen, and helped establish the curriculum for the United States Naval Academy. He was a vocal proponent of modernizing the Navy. When promoted to captain, he oversaw construction of the Navy’s second steam frigate USS Fulton (1837) (photo 7), which he commanded after its completion. He was called ‘The Father of the Steam Navy,’ and organized America’s first corps of naval engineers.
Perry (photos 8&9) received the title of Commodore in June 1840, when the Secretary of the Navy appointed him commandant of New York Navy Yard. The United States Navy did not have ranks higher than captain until 1862, so the title of commodore carried considerable importance. In practice officers who received the title of commodore retained the title for life, and Perry was no exception.
The Perry Expedition: Opening of Japan, 1852–1854
In 1852, Commodore Perry was assigned a mission by American President Millard Fillmore, to force the opening of Japanese ports to American trade, through the use of gunboat diplomacy if necessary.
Preparations for the expedition had been commenced by Perry’s predecessor, who requested the fleet include at least three first class steamships and a sloop of war. The steamers were needed for two reasons: their speed, and it was thought ships without sails would scare the Japanese. They should also be equipped with heavy calibre guns, explosive shells, and rockets, also to scare the Japanese or, if necessary, destroy their armaments.
But Perry wanted a larger fleet, and as a result it was expanded to include the steamers Mississippi, Susquehanna (photo 10), Powhatan (photo 11), and the Allegheny. The Plymouth and Saratoga were the two sloops on the expedition, plus the ship of the line Vermont (photo 12,13).
On November 24 1852 Perry embarked from Norfolk, Virginia for Japan, in command of the East India Squadron, in pursuit of a Japanese trade treaty (photo 14). He chose the paddle-wheeled steam frigate Mississippi (photo6) as his flagship. He made numerous port calls along the way, including at Hong Kong where he met with an American-born Sinologist who provided Chinese language translations of his official letters. He continued to Shanghai where his official letters were translated into Dutch.
The Japanese had been forewarned by the Dutch of Perry’s voyage, but were unwilling to change their policy of national seclusion. Of course they had no way of knowing what kind of fleet Perry would be bringing, and the extent of weaponry it possessed. There was considerable internal debate on how best to meet this potential threat to Japan’s economic and political sovereignty, but no decision arrived at. So, in Japan this external threat, really the first since the Mongols, caused a stale-mate among the decision-makers.
Perry’s first stop on Japanese territory was the Ryukyu islands, now Okinawa, where he secured a promise from the king to open up for trade. Perry finally reached a town called Uraga at the entrance to Edo Bay, now Tokyo Bay, in July 1853 (photo 14a). This was a critical moment for the expedition, and the whole future of US-Japan relations. In fact ultimately what eventuated was to impact on world history for decades to come.
Perry’s actions at this crucial juncture were guided by a careful study of Japan’s previous contacts with Western ships, and what he knew about the Japanese hierarchical culture. Upon his arrival, Perry ordered his ships to steam past Japanese lines towards the capital of Edo, and turn their guns towards nearby Uraga. Perry refused the anticipated Japanese demands to leave, or to proceed to Nagasaki, still the only Japanese port open to foreigners.
This show of considerable force, totalling ignoring the anticipated Japanese response, was intended to intimidate the locals, who were presented with a letter informing them that in case they chose to fight, the Americans would destroy them. He also fired blank shots from his 73 cannons, which he claimed was in celebration of the American Independence Day. Perry’s ships were equipped with new Paixhans shell guns (photo15), cannons capable of wreaking wide explosive destruction with every shell.
He also ordered his ship boats, the smaller boats contained on the larger ocean-going ships, to commence survey operations of the coastline and surrounding waters, also over the objections of local officials. It was almost as if he could do anything he considered would achieve his objectives.
In the meantime, the Japanese government remained paralysed, due to the incapacitation by illness of the current Shogun, Tokugawa Ieyoshi, and by political indecision among Imperial circles on how to handle the unprecedented threat to the nation’s capital. On July 11, it was finally decided that simply accepting a letter from the Americans would not constitute a violation of Japanese sovereignty.
This decision was conveyed to Perry at Uraga, and he was asked to move his fleet slightly southwest where he was allowed to land, on July 14, 1853 (photo15a). After presenting his letter from the President to attending delegates, Perry departed for Hong Kong, promising to return the following year for the Japanese reply. As would be expected, what Perry found during this visit was a rigidly conformist, technologically backward, military-feudal and largely agricultural society, the result of its closure for over two and a half centuries, and minimal contact with the outside world for centuries prior to that.
The emperor’s advisers at Kyoto strongly opposed opening Japan’s ports for trade with the United States, but the shogun appreciated the superior military technology available to the foreigners, and hence was more inclined to accede to Perry’s requests.
Second visit, 1854
Perry returned to Japan on 13 February 1854 (photo16), after only half a year, rather than the full year promised. He came with seven ships, comprising four sailing ships, three steamers, and 1,600 men. Upon seeing Perry’s fleet sailing into their harbor, the Japanese called them the “black ships of evil appearance” (photo 16a). He dropped anchor 26 miles from the capital, Edo. The Japanese activated their harbor defences, which included mobilizing soldiers and sending them to harbor forts and batteries, but no further retaliatory action was taken. Basically they could see resistance was pointless.
As soon as the fleet dropped anchor two guard boats came up to Perry’s flagship, but due to illness – he suffered badly from arthritis – Perry turned them away and they went to another boat to speak with a Captain Henry Adams.
When Perry recovered, he responded to Japanese demands that he leave by saying that trade must begin soon, and that all further negotiations were to be carried out in Edo. The Japanese took this as a serious threat because Perry had told them he planned to move up the bay toward Edo if demands weren’t met soon. He would also shell the city if necessary to get his point across.
Bowing to inevitability, the Japanese authorities eventually gave Perry permission to land at a site called Kanagawa, near present-day Yokohama, close to Edo, on March 8, 1854 (photo17). Three naval bands were there playing the Star Spangled Banner.
Intense negotiations went on for three weeks. Despite opposition from the emperor’s advisers, and with the intention of buying time for Japan to strengthen itself to resist the power of foreign “barbarians”, the shogun reluctantly agreed to open two ports for limited trade and to prohibit cruel treatment of ship-wrecked seamen. This agreement was formalised in the Treaty of Kanagawa, or Perry Convention, which the shogun signed on March 31, 1854. Perry signed as American plenipotentiary, and Hayashi Akira, a scholar/diplomat, signed for the Japanese side (photos18,19).
The treaty guaranteed that the Japanese would save shipwrecked Americans, and would provide food, coal, water, and other provisions for American ships that docked in Nagasaki. Then in five years the same supplies could be procured at Shimoda, which is on the tip of the Izu Peninsula to the south of Mt Fuji, and Hakodate, which is on the northern island of Hokkaido.
The treaty also granted the United States permission to build a consulate in Shimoda. Initially the Japanese refused to agree to trade but eventually gave in and trade was granted as well. With these strokes of a pen, but under heavy duress with the clear threat of military action, Japan’s centuries-long isolation policy was brought to an abrupt end.
Perry then visited Shimoda (photo19a) and Hakodate, the two ports which the treaty stipulated would be opened to visits by American ships, before returning to the United States.
Effects of the Treaty of Kanagawa
With trade opening up, things soon began changing in Japan, the treaty having a wide variety of effects. Firstly, it brought in a large amount of foreign money, greatly disrupting the Japanese currency. The shogun was ineffective in trying to end the inflation that the foreign money caused.
The Treaty also sparked other Western nation’s interest in Japan – Great Britain, Russia, France and the Netherlands all signed “unequal treaties” with Japan. These “unequal treaties” granted foreign nations more rights than Japan. In 1858 another treaty was signed which opened more ports and designated cities in which foreigners could reside.
Because the ruling shôgun seemed unable to do anything about the problems and severe disruptions brought by the foreign trade, both socially and economically, particularly the impact on the Japanese monetary system, some samurai leaders began to demand a change in leadership. This began causing a de-stabilising of the role of Shogun, weakening his position in Japan’s power structure, and initiating a period of political and social instability, including numerous internal struggles, in fact virtually civil war in some parts of the country. (photos20-24).
So what was transpiring at this quite tumultuous time, from the mid-1850s, was the weakening of the Tokugawa shogunate and their declining position in Japan’s internal power structure; the continuing social and economic disruptions the external trade was bringing – even the mere presence of Westerners in the street caused horror and consternation for some; and ongoing battles between various daimyo samurai troops and the shogunate.
The first U.S. consul assigned to a Japanese port was Townsend Harris (photo25). Like many of the early consuls in Asia, Harris was a New York merchant dealing with Chinese imports. He arrived in Shimoda in 1856, but lacking the navy squadron that strengthened Perry’s bargaining position, it took Harris far longer to convince the Japanese to sign a more extended treaty.
Ultimately, Japanese officials learned of how the British used military action to compel the opening to China, and decided it was better to open its doors willingly than to be forced to do so.
The United States and Japan signed their first true commercial treaty, sometimes called the Harris Treaty, in 1858. The European powers soon followed the U.S. example and drew up their own treaties with Japan. Japan sent its first mission to the West in 1860, when Japanese delegates journeyed to the United States to exchange the ratified Harris Treaty.
Finally, in 1867, thirteen years after the formal opening of the country, the economic upheavals and civil strife it caused led to the downfall of the Shogunate, and the creation of a new centralized government, with the emperor as its symbolic head. The following year, 1868, all power, real and symbolic, was moved to Edo, which was at that time renamed Tokyo.
This process, which effectively heralded in the era of modern Japan, is known as the Meiji Restoration, because the emperor of the time, now restored to the supreme position, adopted the name Meiji, which means enlightened rule (photos25a,25b,25c). Included in this process was the ending of the samurai class and dominant role in society, forcing tens of thousands of previously powerful samurai to become unemployed and dispossessed, roaming the streets with no power, no swords and nothing to do.
Perry’s return to the United States, 1855
When Perry returned to the United States in 1855, Congress voted to grant him a reward of $20,000 (US$500,000 in 2016) in appreciation of his work in Japan. He used part of this money to prepare and publish a report on the expedition. He was also promoted to the grade of rear-admiral on the retired list (when his health began to fail even more) as a reward for his service in the Far East.
Commodore Perry’s flag (upper left corner) was flown from the United States to Tokyo for display at the surrender ceremonies which officially ended World War II. A replica of the flag is on display on board the USS Missouri (BB-63) memorial in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii (photo26).
Although Japan opened its ports to modern trade reluctantly, once it did, it took great advantage of the access to modern technological developments this created. In just three decades it effectively caught up to the main Western powers, in industry, education, medicine and of course the military.
By the late 1890s it had risen to the position of being the most powerful Asian nation, its by then formidable arsenal of land and sea weapons able to defeat Russia in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5, the first time ever an Asian nation had defeated a western country (photos27,28).
With its centuries-long practice of internal conflicts, apart from during the Tokugawa period, and the ruler and ruling classes actually being military people, Japan has long been a militarist nation, although at the same time fastidiously pursuing culture and the arts. For example, it was common for military leaders to partake of the tea ceremony, in beautiful garden-setting teahouses, during breaks in battles (photo29). They were cultured people.
Hence it was fairly natural that during this catch-up with the West period of the 1860s through 1890s, a strong emphasis was placed on arming Japan with entirely modern weaponry, along with attention to industry, medicine and education in general. So, as I mentioned, in this short period of just three decades, Japan became the equal militarily of Russia.
Better known than this of course is the fact that Japan once more went through this process of starting from a very low base, to become a world power, economically at least, during another three decades period, namely the 1960s to 1980s (photo30). One wonders what they might have achieved if they’d gone the economic route to power from the 1930s instead of the 1960s, another of history’s what-ifs.