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Americans, as usual, were on the move. "Before him lies a boundless continent, and he surges onward as if time pressed and he was afraid of finding no room for his exertions," wrote the observant French visitor, Alexis de Tocqueville, as he minutely examined the American in the early 1830s. These people "daily quit the spots which gave them birth, to acquire extensive domains in a remote region," he noted with awe. "Millions of men are marching at once towards the same horizon; their language, their religion, their manners differ; their object is the same. Fortune has been promised to them somewhere in the West, and to the West they go to find it."
By 1850, this landed West had largely been claimed by the Americans. A war for conquest against Mexico between 1846 and 1848 brought California and much of the Southwest into the Union. A near war with Great Britain, and then panicked negotiations by U.S. officials, had added the Oregon Territory. Suddenly possessing some of the world's finest harbors on the Pacific Ocean's eastern rim, Americans now looked toward a new West--the islands of the Pacific and the countries of East Asia, where vast populations promised opportunity for trade and profit.
Tocqueville had understood this destiny nearly a generation before the United States occupied the continent's west coast. "The Americans [are] destined by nature to be a great maritime people.... They will become, like the English, the commercial agents of a great portion of the world." he wrote. They produced more than they needed, they enjoyed superb ports, and they employed cheaper ships and better sailors than other nations. Moreover, they were already beating the British in Asian trade, especially in a race for the greatest of all Asian markets, China:
The European navigator touches at different ports in the course of a long voyage; he loses precious time in making the harbor or in waiting for a favorable wind.... [But] the American starts from Boston to purchase tea in China; he arrives at Canton, stays there a few days, and then returns. In less than two years he has sailed as far as the entire circumference of the globe and has seen land but once. It is true that during a voyage of eight or ten months he has drunk brackish water and lived on salt meat; that he has been in a continual contest with the sea, with disease, and with weariness, but upon his return he can sell a pound of his tea for a halfpenny less than the English merchant, and his purpose is accomplished.
In all, Tocqueville summarized with both accuracy and sarcasm, Americans "do for cheapness what the French did for conquest"--that is, develop it into a national system. The Frenchman's sketching of the U.S.-China trade was largely accurate, although many ships did stop in California or Hawaii for rest and more trading. Notably, the United States did not open formal diplomatic relations with China until 1844, about a decade after Tocqueville wrote.
After forging this link with China and occupying the west coast springboard, American attention to Asia intensified. New technology, especially the primitive railroads that sped internal commerce to ports, and the beautiful clipper ships that cut sailing time across oceans, further riveted this Far Eastern focus. The British called this region "the Far East." Washington officials continued to use the term, but in the ever-expanding arena of American history, it was clearly more accurate and revealing to think of it as the Far West. A popular American magazine wrote in 1852 that "Twenty years ago the `far west' was a fixed idea resting upon a fixed extent of territory"; but now U.S. officials had discovered "a `far west' on the isles of the Japanese Empire and on the shores of China." One editor directly linked the Indians and Japanese: "The same law of civilization that has compelled the red men ... to retire before the superior hardihood of our pioneers will require the people of the Japanese empire to abandon their ... cruelty."
Americans tended to think of Japan and China as two distinct countries linked for U.S. traders in one common opportunity. At first the interest in Japan was not solely for trade, but for using the islands as a way station to the already mystical markets of China. Sailors washed ashore from the wrecks of ships once involved in China trade or the equally lucrative whaling business would be better treated than had their unfortunate predecessors if the Japanese were taught civilized manners. From the beginning of this relationship, Americans saw Japan as part of a giant triangle, with China as the third point. The Japanese came to view the United States and China similarly. This perspective shaped Japanese and U.S. foreign policies for the next 150 years.
By the early 1850s, Tocqueville's "great maritime people" thus were focusing on a civilization profoundly unlike their own. The United States occupied much of the North American continent; Japan was an island nation one-twenty-fifth the size. (In the twentieth century, four of the fifty American states were each larger than Japan.) The American continent held great mineral wealth and natural resources; the Japanese islands were extremely poor except for coal. The United States was about 75 years old; Japan's state could be traced back unbroken over 2,500 years to 660 B.C. when, as history and mythology held, the first emperor, Jimmu Tenno, sat on the throne. Over the centuries, and especially between A.D. 600 and 800, Japan adopted Buddhism, Confucianism, language, and even administrative practices from the great Chinese civilization. Americans adopted Christianity, language, and governmental principles from a Western Europe transformed by the post-1400 Renaissance and Reformation. The Japanese language, while grown from Chinese roots, was extremely difficult to learn, especially in its written form, and related little to other languages; Americans used English, and sometimes German, Italian, Spanish, or variants of French--all related to languages understood over large areas of both the so-called Old and New worlds. The languages revealed a specially divisive characteristic: while Japan's people were homogeneous--less than 1 percent being non-Japanese-the American teemed with peoples from many European, Latin American, African, and, especially after 1860, Asian cultures. In the United States the melting pot had not melted and blurred those cultures, but produced a mosaic of peoples. In Japan, the melting pot never needed to be turned on.
Perhaps, however, an equally great difference between the two peoples in the nineteenth century (and indeed, long after) lay in their views of order and, as a corollary, their views of the role their national governments played in maintaining that order. Tocqueville was amazed at the ever restless, ever-climbing-upward Americans: "All are constantly seeking to acquire property, power, and reputation," but "few contemplate these things on a great scale." The poet Walt Whitman bragged in midcentury that "Yankeedoodledom is going ahead with the resistless energy of a sixty-five-hundred-thousand-horsepower steam engine." Seldom, if ever, was American society more changing, expansive, explosively pluralistic, and open to the different cultures and practices of new immigrants. Americans, indeed, not only rushed westward, but rushed toward civil war.
They were free to follow this headlong pursuit of wealth for a number of reasons. Americans believed they had quite literally been born free--that is, that they were born, or had come to live, in a land free of feudal institutions (guilds, orders, religious and governmental institutions) and other restraints found in Europe after 7200. Lacking a feudal history, Americans wondered why peoples in Europe or Asia were not similarly unrestrained. Moreover, Americans in the mid-nineteenth century ruled a vast land that seemed endlessly open for settlement and exploitation. Several million Indians had stood in the way, but they were being systematically exterminated or contained on reservations. The central government's role in all this was not to regulate, restrain, or harmonize the society, but to release it--to provide the highways, canals, currency policy, tariffs, and military protection required for the expansion of Whitman's "Yankeedoodledom." Midcentury America reveled in the relentless, individualistic, acquisition-for-ascent that Tocqueville had recorded with jaw-dropping wonder.
Japan belonged to a different world. A Japanese "constitution" of 604, attributed to Prince Shotoku, stated in its first article that harmony, above all, was most to be valued. That early--and forever after--Japanese emphasized harmony, or wa, over acquisition-for-ascent. Not that passivity was tolerated. Prince Shotoku's document had as Article VIII: "Let the ministers and functionaries attend the court early in the morning and retire late. The business of the State does not admit remissness, and the whole day is hardly enough for its accomplishments." For more than a thousand years Japanese practiced a strong work ethic. It was an ethic, unlike the American, exercised within feudal institutions that formed during the next twelve hundred years, and over a constricted territory rather than limitless frontiers. Within this space and these institutions, Japanese leaders believed, wa alone held back disorder, anarchy, and destruction.
Not that disorder disappeared. Japanese history is pockmarked by uprisings, riots, and assassinations. In 1942, a New York Times reporter entitled a book about Japan Government by Assassination. For fifteen years after Japan opened to the West, periodic wars, even civil war, occurred--one reason why then and later leading Japanese linked Western influence and internal disorder. But before and after that era, the Japanese fervently assumed that society and their own happiness advanced on the wheels of consensus and harmony, much as Americans credited their success to openness and acquisition-for-ascent. The Americans liked to say, "The squeaking wheel gets the grease." The Japanese proverb ran, "The nail that sticks up will be hammered down." Long before 1800, officials had discouraged nails from sticking up. As Buddhism grew after its introduction from China in the seventh century, so too did its principles of discipline and mediation. By 1100 a new military class, the samurai ("one who serves"), became the right hand of the Shogun, a military ruler living in Edo, the present Tokyo. The Shogun was the center of power. But he and all Japanese swore their allegiance to the Emperor, whose divine origins extended back to Jimmu Tenno, although his actual power--exercised from his throne in the magnificent and isolated city of Kyoto--was mostly ceremonial. The Shogun presided over a system whose key agents were about 260 feudal lords, or daimyo, who ruled over provincial centers where Japanese daily life was both focused and governed.
First Encounters with a New West
Propelled outward by the search for gold and Christian converts, and often guided by the technological discoveries of the Renaissance, explorers from a new Western Europe moved across the globe in the early sixteenth century. In 1542, storm-tossed Portuguese sailors landed in southern Kyushu. They carried firearms which Japanese had never seen. Seven years later, Jesuit missionaries appeared; the Japanese allowed them to proselytize. By 1582, the missionaries claimed 150,000 converts, despite considerable language barriers. Suddenly in 1587 the great military ruler Hideyoshi threw out the missionaries. To make his point clear, he crucified both foreign and Japanese Christians. Hideyoshi then tightened his political links with the samurai and undertook a "sword hunt" in which all weapons were seized from everyone except the samurai. Forever after, the holding of firearms by private citizens was considered unacceptable by the society, and one crucial contribution to wa was in place.
In 1603 the powerful Tokugawa family began its rule as Shogun, a rule that lasted for two and a half centuries. In 1640, as if by premonition, the Tokugawas decided that wa could best be maintained by closing Japan to the West. Any Japanese trying to leave or return to the islands could receive the death penalty. To lessen the temptation further, the Shogun ended all construction of oceangoing ships. Other than selected Asians, only a few Dutch traders were allowed contact, and then only through the artificial island of Deshima, built offshore near Nagasaki. Trade with China did continue, and government-to-government relations developed with Korea. Otherwise the Japanese followed the "closed country" (sakoku) policy. A trigger for this rapid closing had been a revolt of 1637-38 led by Japanese Roman Catholics. Trade and Christianity were now defined as disruptive and evil.
As a century of contact with the new Western Europe suddenly stopped, an interesting paradox appeared: the vigorous people of an island nation, surrounded by water and possessing ships comparable to Europe's finest, voluntarily gave up trade routes that already stretched into Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean, outlawed the making of profit (or the taking of new weapons) from Westerners, and largely closed itself off for the sake of internal peace. This closing off, however, did not mean stagnation. To the contrary: the Tokugawa energetically set about defining an orderly Japanese society as the center of Asia; scholars now see the Tokugawa era as the base of post-1890s, and especially 1930s, Japanese expansion over Asia. As the less civilized Manchus swept over China in the seventeenth century, Japan saw itself as the old China, that is, as Japan-as-central-kingdom. The Tokugawas gave refuge to Chinese scholars, and even set up a form of tribute system in which Korean, Ryukyu, and Dutch envoys paid homage to the Shogun. Japanese self-isolation before the 1850s thus ironically led to a self-definition and identity in the handling of foreign relations that helped propel Japanese expansion over Asia after the 1890s.
The Tokugawa Shogun based his power largely on military capability and control of about one-quarter of the nation's rice crop. Peace was so rampant throughout the land that the samurai, with Tokugawa encouragement, evolved from uneducated, brave warriors into learned and highly competitive bureaucrats. This pillar of post-1868 Japan thus began forming a century earlier. But the bureaucracy and the polity of sakoku did not mean a lack of creativity. A flourishing middle-class culture bloomed that produced Kabuki theater, imaginative fashions, influential painters, and lasting poetry. Important parts of this culture were centralized in Nagasaki, where Japanese officials kept track of Western developments through the Dutch traders.
Until 1800, foreign powers all but ignored Japan. The most aggressive and powerful, Great Britain, disdained the tea and silk trade conducted by the Dutch, a trade paltry compared with the British profits from India, the Americas, and parts of Southeast Asia. In 1814, one British official examined the record and flatly declared "that the Trade with Japan can never become an object of attention for the Manufactures and produce of Great Britain." Other foreign warships, however, now cruised Japan's coasts, and the captains were not primarily interested in trade.
Most ominous were the Russians. As they moved across Siberia into the Amur River region and over to Alaska during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, they clashed with fishermen from Japan's northern islands. Both the Kurile Islands and Sakhalin were soon contested by Russians and Japanese. In 1804 the Russian-American Company asked officials at Nagasaki for permission to trade with Japan so the company could supply the expanding Russian settlements to the north. The Japanese flatly rejected the request. The Russians decided during 1806-07 to teach the Tokugawa a lesson by raiding villages in the northern islands. The Japanese did not back down. Instead, they captured a Russian official in 1811 and held him for two years until the tsar's officials finally apologized for the raids. Meanwhile, Japanese tinters began to warn that Russia posed the major threat to their country's security. By the 1840s and 1850s, this feeling grew intense as Japan watched the Europeans exploit China. After Great Britain's victory over China in the 1840-42 Opium War, a war that unsettled much of the Pacific's western rim, the powers scrambled for concessions. The Russians dispatched Rear Admiral Evfimii Putiatin in 1842-43 to open trade with Japan, but Japanese resistance and the trade's skimpy rewards led Putiatin to put his considerable talents to work elsewhere. Ten years later, Putiatin was again ordered to open Japan. When he entered Nagasaki Harbor in August 1853, he found he was too late. The Americans had sailed into the bay at Edo two weeks earlier.
The Appearance of the Americans
These visitors had been propelled across the Pacific by their national credo of "manifest destiny," their growing desire to conquer Asian markets, and--paradoxically--a fear of deepening internal crisis. The slogan of "manifest destiny" had appeared in a feverishly expansionist Democratic Party newspaper in 1845 that demanded the conquering of Oregon, even if it meant war with Great Britain which also claimed the territory. The slogan came to mean that Americans ("with the calm confidence of a Christian holding 4 aces," as frontier writer Mark Twain later phrased it) believed they had God-given rights to spread both their new political institutions and successful commerce across the continent, then into Latin America, and to uplift, among others, the benighted Europeans and Asians.
Driven by principle, Americans aimed also to gain profits. God and Mammon, the larger purpose and the individual's earthly success, were seldom far apart in mainstream American society. (In Japan, to the contrary, when a larger purpose--a Japanese manifest destiny--did emerge, it was seldom confused with individual acquisition.)
Between 1790 and 1853 at least twenty-seven U.S. ships (including three warships) visited Japan, only to be turned away. In 1832, as part of his epochal navigation of the Pacific, Edmund Roberts received orders from the Andrew Jackson administration to make a treaty with Japan, but he died before reaching the islands. Five years later, the Morrison, owned by Americans in Canton, tried to enter Japan with the excuse that it was returning shipwrecked Japanese sailors. The crew, however, hoped to Christianize Japanese as well as "trade a little." When shore cannon opened fire, the Morrison beat it back to China. In 1846, Commodore James Biddle, head of the newly created U.S. East Asia squadron, carried on heated talks with Japanese officials near Tokyo Bay, only to have them emphasize they had no interest in trading with him and that he need not try a second time. To demonstrate their point, when Biddle tried to force his way onto a Japanese ship a crew member knocked him down.
Meanwhile U.S. whaling vessels worked the rich Japanese coastal waters and often (as in 1848) forced their shipwrecked sailors on the unkind mercies of Japanese villagers. Whaling became a metaphor for the American crossing of the last great frontier of the Pacific, and the hubris that compelled individuals to challenge those frontiers, when Herman Melville published Moby-Dick in 1851. (Later, when Commodore Matthew C. Perry wanted a writer to tell the story of how he opened Japan to the West, Nathaniel Hawthorne recommended Melville. Some 140 years later, Melville's work shaped both United States and Japanese literary studies.)
Japan moved into still sharper focus after 1840 when Shanghai was opened to trade. U.S. ship captains followed the shorter way from California to Shanghai via the north circle route that brought them close to Japan. The 1846-48 conquests of California ports, along with an accelerating industrial and agricultural economic revolution, opened a historic opportunity--but also a potential trap. The opportunity was noted by Secretary of the Treasury Robert Walker in 1848: "By our recent acquisitions in the Pacific, Asia has suddenly become our neighbor, with a placid intervening ocean inviting our steamships upon the track of a commerce greater than that of all Europe combined." In 1851, Hunts Merchant Magazine warned that U.S. production was already furnishing "us with a potential danger: constantly augmenting capital that must seek for new channels of employment." The showdown, Hunt's believed, would be against the equally aggressive British and result, happily, in American control of "the whole Oriental trade."
But manifest destiny had its dark side. As vast new territory was rapidly annexed, bitter debate erupted between a pro-slave South and anti-slave North over which section would control the newly conquered West and its ports. When Congress passed the Compromise of 1850, the problem seemed resolved. But many, including Secretary of State Daniel Webster, feared the crisis had been only papered over. In 1850-51, Webster even resorted to blowing up a very minor problem with Austria into a diplomatic crisis so, as he later admitted, he could take American minds off internal dangers and put them on less divisive foreign problems. Webster, moreover, had long been a leader of the Whig Party, whose most powerful members included large mercantile houses deeply involved in international trade. During earlier debates over whether to annex Texas, Webster caught Whig foreign policy priorities perfectly when he proclaimed that one San Francisco was worth twenty Texases. Using U.S. ports as the springboards to Asia became a Websterian principle. As Secretary of State in 1843, he had written the instructions that led to the first U.S. trade treaty with China in 1844. In 1842, moreover, he had penned a declaration, duly announced by President John Tyler, that Hawaii was to be treated by other powers as a special U.S. reserve. Webster was creating the first American policy for the Pacific and China. Japan was next.
In May 1851, Webster heard from Captain John H. Aulick, who was to take command of the East Asia squadron, that the return of seventeen shipwrecked Japanese then in San Francisco might provide the opportunity for "opening commercial relations with Japan." The Secretary of State put Aulick in charge of the mission. Captain James Glynn, an experienced Asian hand, gave President Millard Fillmore and Aulick good advice: do not treat Japanese "as being less civilized than ourselves," do not get into arguments over treatment of U.S. sailors, and do focus only on obtaining a trade treaty. Moreover, Glynn shrewdly added, do not ask for exclusive U.S. privileges, but for access to Japan for all nations. Thus the powerful British will have reason to support, rather than oppose, the American demands.
On May 10, 1851, Webster drafted a letter from President Fillmore to the Japanese Emperor. Assuring the Emperor that Aulick was on no religious enterprise, the letter asked for "friendship and commerce," as well as help (especially coal) for ships that used the northern route to China. Of special interest, Webster's draft of the note emphasized recent U.S. triumphs on land and in technology:
You know [Fillmore told the Emperor] that the United States of America now extend from sea to sea; that the great countries of Oregon & California are parts of the United States; and that from these countries, which are rich in gold & silver & precious stones, our steamers can reach the shores of your happy land in less than twenty days....
[These ships] must pass along the Coast of your Empire; storms & winds may cause them to be wrecked on your shores, and we ask & expect from your kindness & your greatness, kindness for our men.... We wish that our people may be permitted to trade with your people, but we shall not authorize them to break any laws of your Empire....
Your Empire has a great abundance of coal; this is an article which our Steamships, in going from California to China, must use.
Or, as Webster phrased it to Aulick, `The moment is near, when the last link in the chain of oceanic steam-navigation is to be formed," and "our enterprising merchants [should] supply [that] last link in that great chain, which unites all nations of the world." Such a dream propelled many powerful Americans westward across the Pacific after as well as before 1900.
The opening of Japan thus resulted from both the U.S. quest for China's trade and the technological breakthroughs (especially steam) of the 1840s. Japan, as Webster nicely phrased it to a friend. was the key because God had placed coal "in the depths of the Japanese islands for the benefit of the human family." Aulick, however, fumbled his chance to become famous. Charged with mistreating a Brazilian diplomat, Aulick was replaced by Fillmore with Commodore Matthew C. Perry. The commodore initially protested he preferred commanding the U.S. Mediterranean squadron instead of trying to make yet another attempt to open Japan. Born in Rhode Island in 1794, Perry had served in the War of 1812 under his famous brother, Oliver Hazard Perry (who after one battle in 1813, issued the succinct, soon-to-be-famous announcement: "We have met the enemy, and they are ours"). By 1837 Matthew had risen through the ranks and commanded one of the first U.S. steam warships. During the Mexican War he won some fame for helping to conquer Vera Cruz.
After overcoming his reluctance to become Webster's battering ram against Japan, Perry prepared thoroughly. He especially carried on extensive talks with business figures interested in Asian trade. The commodore also demanded greater latitude in his orders from Webster, a demand the Secretary of State granted just before his death in October 1852. Perry sailed for Japan with "full and discretionary powers," in Webster's words, but the commodore was to "be held to a strict responsibility" for his actions. The "discretionary powers" included possible use of force if the Japanese tried to treat him as they had the unfortunate Commodore Biddle.
Perry's four ships, the Susquehanna, Mississippi (both the new steam type), Plymouth, and Saratoga, took the long traditional route along the Atlantic, around the Cape of Good Hope, through the Indian Ocean, then to Singapore, Hong Kong, and Shanghai, before approaching Japan. Then they returned briefly to the China coast and, finally, moved into Edo (Tokyo) Bay on July 8, 1853. The Dutch had warned the Shogun's government, the bakufu, that Americans were coming, but the Japanese were nevertheless surprised that Perry appeared so soon. Their surprise mounted when the commodore ignored low-level officials and insisted--pointedly as he stood beneath the cannons of his warship--on dealing only with bugyo (that is, someone given specific powers directly by the Shogun). Their surprise changed into near horror when they further learned that President Fillmore's letter was addressed to the Emperor as if Emperor Komei were a mere equal. The stunned bakufu decided to play for time by sending two bugyo to accept the letter on July 14. They also used their women to appease and distract the powerful. One U.S. officer recorded that "the inhabitants ... by the most unmistakable signs invited our intercourse with their women." As the historian Ian Buruma explains, "The Americans had guns, the Japanese lifted their skirts." (A similar drama would be played out in late 1945.) Despite the diversion, Perry rightly feared that the Japanese might stall until he ran short of water and provisions; he would then have to sail away in disgrace. The commodore therefore declared he was departing for China, but promised to return a year later--with force--to receive the Japanese response.
The next move was up to Abe Masahiro, leader of the Shogun's council. A daimyo (and hence known and trusted by most other powerful lords of these more than one hundred fiefdoms), Abe was a gentle, well-liked man so shrewd that he had entered the council at age twenty-four in 1843. A politician who sometimes bent too easily and quickly to prevailing political winds, he carefully sounded out the daimyo about the proper response to Perry. These men divided. Some knew nothing of dangerous international situations in the western Pacific. But all seemed to agree that under no circumstances could Japan open its empire to foreign traders; their goods would upset the nation's internal order. But how to inform Perry of this when he returned with his warships? Some of the more powerful daimyo advised stalling while the bakufu built a modern military to deal with the commodore on Japanese terms. A number, indeed, were willing to go to war with the United States--after proper preparations.
These daimyo demonstrated a fascinating confidence that Japan could quickly match the West's military technology, as well as perhaps profit from that technology in international trade. ("We have reason to believe that the Americans and Russians have recently learned the art of navigation," a typically confident daimyo told Abe; "in what way would the keen and wise men of our empire appear inferior to the Westerners if they got into training from today?") Abe knew that the West, most immediately Perry, would not give Japan the needed time. Any doubt of that disappeared when Admiral Putiatin again led his four Russian ships into Nagasaki harbor just after Perry left Edo. The convenient death of the Shogun gave Abe an excuse to put off Putiatin's demands for a treaty. At the same time, however, Abe removed a two-century rule against building large ships and named an admiral of the new Shogun's navy. A different Japan was beginning to stir.
Putiatin finally departed just before Perry reappeared on February 24, 1854. This time he brought seven impressive ships and sailed straight into sight of Edo--before the edgy Japanese talked him into moving some forty-five miles west to Kanagawa. As the bakufu examined the commodore's demands, the two sides demonstrated their friendship by exchanging gifts. Perry's legendary gifts included a telegraph machine, books, maps, and a miniature steam train that the Japanese delighted in operating. On the last day of March 1854, Perry and the Japanese signed a treaty of Kanagawa that contained a dozen provisions. The first promised eternal peace between Japan and America. Another clause opened to U.S. vessels two ports, Shimoda and Hakodate, where shipwrecked sailors could also be taken in. Americans could move around within a roughly fifty-mile radius of these two ports. The bakufu agreed to accept a U.S. consul in Japan. But--pointedly--nothing was stated explicitly about trade. Allowing entry into Japan's market was so complex, the Shogun's officials told Perry, that a decision required a great deal of time. The Japanese, in other words, had no intention of following the downhill slide of China into dependency on the wishes and products of foreigners.