Breaking Open Japan: Commodore Perry, Lord Abe, and American Imperialism in 1853


On July 14, 1853, the four warships of America's East Asia Squadron made for Kurihama, 30 miles south of the Japanese capital, then called Edo. It had come to pry open Japan after her two and a half centuries of isolation and nearly a decade of intense planning by Matthew Perry, the squadron commander. The spoils of the recent Mexican Spanish–American War had whetted a powerful American appetite for using her soaring wealth and power for commercial and political advantage.


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Breaking Open Japan: Commodore Perry, Lord Abe, and American Imperialism in 1853

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On July 14, 1853, the four warships of America's East Asia Squadron made for Kurihama, 30 miles south of the Japanese capital, then called Edo. It had come to pry open Japan after her two and a half centuries of isolation and nearly a decade of intense planning by Matthew Perry, the squadron commander. The spoils of the recent Mexican Spanish–American War had whetted a powerful American appetite for using her soaring wealth and power for commercial and political advantage.

Perry's cloaking of imperial impulse in humanitarian purpose was fully matched by Japanese self–deception. High among the country's articles of faith was certainty of its protection by heavenly power. A distinguished Japanese scholar argued in 1811 that "Japanese differ completely from and are superior to the peoples of...all other countries of the world."

So began one of history's greatest political and cultural clashes.

In Breaking Open Japan, George Feifer makes this drama new and relevant for today. At its heart were two formidable men: Perry and Lord Masahiro Abe, the political mastermind and real authority behind the Emperor and the Shogun. Feifer gives us a fascinating account of "sealed off" Japan and shows that Perry's aggressive handling of his mission had far reaching consequences for Japan – and the United States – well into the twentieth if not twenty–first century.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
For veteran scholarly journalist Feifer (The Battle of Okinawa), when Americans "opened" Japan by force in the 1850s, they opened a Pandora's box, creating a resentful attitude that eventually led to Pearl Harbor. This genial but tartly moral tale based on English-language sources revolves around two men. Commodore Matthew Perry, a doughty professional and father of the U.S. Steam Navy, had just the right combination of skill and arrogance to sail across the Pacific and deliver a virtual ultimatum to the Japanese. Abe Masahiro was equally doughty in defense of Japanese sovereignty but was a realist who had seen British imperialism humiliate China in the Opium Wars. Perry's visit ignited conflicts within Japan that ended in revolutionary change and the modern nation. Feifer places more weight (both positive and negative) on America's role than do many historians of Japan. But it is bracing to see the 1850s as part of America's long engagement with Asia and to have this wonderful story so well told. Highly recommended for public libraries.-Charles W. Hayford, Northwestern Univ., Evanston, IL Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060884321
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 10/17/2006
  • Pages: 416
  • Sales rank: 1,509,735
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.29 (d)

Meet the Author

George Feifer is the author of many successful books, including Tennozan: The Battle of Okinawa, a New York Times Notable Book; Moscow Farewell, a Book of the Month Club Main Selection; and The Girl from Petrovka, the basis of a Hollywood film. He's written for a wide variety of publications, including the New Republic, the New York Times Magazine, Harper's, and the Saturday Evening Post. He lives in Roxbury, Connecticut.

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Read an Excerpt

Breaking Open Japan

Commodore Perry, Lord Abe, and American Imperialism in 1853
By George Feifer

HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2006 George Feifer
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0060884320

Chapter One

The Black Ships

In the predawn hours of July 14, 1853, the "Origin of the Sun," as Japan called itself, would have more honored the star for staying down. The darkness that hid the danger sustained the hope to which the secluded nation clung. Surely higher help would prevent the aliens from landing. Those "stupid and simple" people who came from the earth's "hindmost regions" were "incapable of doing good things," a prominent scholar had recently warned.

Some believed this last moment had been chosen for salvation. No one needed reminding that was when the previous rescue of rescues had come, heavenly protectors sending the Divine Winds that destroyed the foreign fleets of that living past. That was six centuries before, but its emotional significance remained largely intact. Since this was the land the divinities most cherished, their intervention by storm was logical and deserved.

A distinguished theologian had affirmed that law of the universe several decades earlier in this nineteenth century. "Ours is a splendid and blessed country, the Land of the Gods beyond doubt," he wrote with all the confidence of people who have visited no other. "Japanese differ completely from and are superior to the peoples of . . . all other countries in the world."

The superiorpeople nevertheless trembled. "We're very, very afraid of foreign ships," the Shogun's most influential consort confided in 1846. "We have no idea what to do about them."

No idea, and the grave illness of the Shogun, the supreme military overlord, made the current emergency even more dire. As much as any one man--even the Shoguns themselves, when they were sound--could make the vital decisions for the labyrinthian government, responsibility had fallen to the invalid's Chief Senior Councilor, Abe Masahiro. Young as he was, Lord Abe had learned to negotiate the country's power mazes as well as anyone in living memory. The Councilor's mediating and manipulating skills well fit him to the complex domestic circumstances, and his training had been all the fuller for the Shogun's less-than-forceful leadership and protracted ailment. If this had been primarily a political matter, Abe might possibly have conceived rescue, despite feudal restraints on his freedom of action. But the struggle was almost entirely military, for which he was a sorry mismatch with the commander of the naval colossus confronting him from point-blank range. The mild-mannered lord was far from a military leader, and of a country that had become flabby for fighting, despite its reputation for the opposite.

Present events, the incapacitated Shogun is said to have despaired, were the most extraordinary since the beginning of heaven and earth. In distant Washington, which had sent the challenge, Secretary of State Daniel Webster pronounced it a "great national movement," one of the "most important ever." Not all Americans agreed. Some griped that it would be better to open America's West with good roads and services than to try to open Japan. The Baltimore Sun urged dumping the "humbug"; another newspaper disparaged the "romantic notion" that was of as much interest as a balloon soaring off "to one of the planets." While a senator denounced it as exercise for the bloated navy's unneeded ships, the New York Times warned that an armed force would probably "frighten the poor Japanese out of their . . . wits."1 The fright, the paper predicted, might drive them to sign a treaty, but they will "feel at perfect liberty to violate [it] so soon as the vessels of war shall have been removed."

But many more Americans applauded the venture, even without swallowing Webster's "most important ever" hyperbole that had been adroitly aroused by Matthew Perry, the commander of the naval guns that were again becoming visible in July 14's approaching light.2 It was hyperbole because bigger deals were happening elsewhere. Although Washington was here taking one of its earliest leads in world diplomacy, demonstrating a new willingness not to wait for European initiatives, it was only one of surging America's undertakings. A twentieth-century Tokyo scholar's view of the expedition as "a single step in the centuries-old march towards global colonial expansion"3 rang of oversimplicity, but also of partial truth. The adventurous country that had recently completed its march to the Pacific was eagerly probing the opportunities beyond. And although the sparks it was winging toward Asia would soon dim at home, especially once obscured by the Civil War's flames, the conflagration they were about to light in Japan would continue blazing there, where the undertaking would be seen not as a new fling for American freedom and the happiness of prosperity, but as a terrible threat to security and independence.

From Edo Castle in particular, the seat of the Japanese government, the future wobbled. Of course Abe Masahiro betrayed no outward evidence of that. On the contrary, the cordial aristocrat radiated the serenity required of Japanese leaders. Slightly bulging his rich robes, the Chief Senior Councilor with the face a faithful retainer saw as "always lively, like spring" looked a little like a character from The Tale of Genji, the novel that describes court life and loves of the tenth and eleventh centuries. If he couldn't permit himself to tremble, his elegant nature rejected the swaggering affected by colleagues who wanted to attack the foreign squadron. Still, the government's de facto head had reason for profound anxiety, which would be the most enduring consequence of the impending clash of cultures and wills.4

At the moment, the dignitaries charged with preparing a satisfactory reply to Commodore Perry were producing mostly fury and confusion. Waiting in triple-tiered Edo Castle for developments beyond their control, some still hoped the foreigners would obey a command Abe had conveyed to them several days earlier: "Leave immediately."When the bluff fizzled, the tiny number who made Japan's political decisions could think of nothing else with which to counter the foreigners' threat.

Nor was heaven interceding. This time, the failure of miraculous salvation to materialize hardened the criticism of a handful of Japanese who had been . . .


Excerpted from Breaking Open Japan by George Feifer Copyright © 2006 by George Feifer. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 31, 2006

    A riveting tale

    Commodore Perry¿s opening of Japan is an event that has faded somewhat in U.S. history, coming as it did in the years before the Civil War and well before the fateful attack on Pearl Harbor. But Feifer¿s scholarly, yet entertaining telling of the events deserves the attention of anyone who enjoys a good historical yarn or who seeks a better understanding of U.S. history in general. Feifer¿s Breaking Open Japan is both magisterial in its understanding and colorful in its narrative. The author has a masterful knowledge of his subject¿including the Japanese history that led it to the point of Perry¿s arrival in 1953¿and he combines it with a novelist¿s style and an eye for detail. The idea of any nation¿especially Japan, now perhaps the world¿s greatest trader¿being closed off from other nations is so foreign to modern eyes. But Feifer makes it understandable. He also shows how Perry¿s mission grew from the American sense that it had a duty to modernize, civilize, and (to some extent) Christianize the world. This is an attitude that grew through the 19th Century and into the 20th. In Perry, Feifer shows its personal embodiment. If the book is to be faulted it is that Feifer seems to assume at least some knowledge of who Perry was and what he did. I doubt though that most Americans could recall his name. The result is that the beginning can be somewhat slow going. But as the reader warms to the fascinating, though foreign subject, Feifer¿s Breaking Open Japan gains focus. In the end his history is more riveting than one would have ever imagined possible. It¿s a huge achievement and no doubt essential for scholars in of American history and Japanese history as well.

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