Opening Japan

It was on this day in 1854 that Commodore Matthew Perry and his staff concluded the Kanagawa Treaty with the Empire of Japan, ending more than Japan’s more than 250 years of self-imposed isolation. Perry’s mission to open Japan to trade with the United States had many important immediate and long-range effects. It forever changed the course of Japanese history, and ultimately world history, making it one of the most important treaties in diplomatic history. In the wake of the Kanagawa Treaty, Japan modernized at an almost unbelievable rate.

When Perry’s mission landed near Edo (now Tokyo,) Japan had no modern, industrial manufacturing, no steamships, no navy capable of contending with any Western powers, no modern armaments, no telegraph, no modern printing presses, and no international diplomatic corps. Japan in that era was truly isolated from the rest of the world, and had limited influence beyond its island empire. This is by no means to imply that Japan was undeveloped or unsophisticated: the major reason for these lags and lacks was the political policy of the Tokugawa Shoguns who had been the de facto rulers of Japan since 1600.

During much of the 16th Century, Japan had been rent by progressively more ferocious and deadly civil warfare as competing lords vied for power. Western powers, primarily Portugal and the Netherlands, readily supplied armaments to the feuding nobility, and freely meddled in Japan’s internal affairs. When Tokugawa Ieyasu emerged triumphant in 1600 as Shogun, overlord of all Japan, he set about restoring Japan to stability and prosperity. One measure he undertook was to ensure the peace with several laws (and a large number of executions of rivals as well, this being an old and respected tradition across all times and cultures.)

For example, though in the last decades of the 16th century Japan is estimated to have made more muskets per annum than Western Europe of that time, under the early Tokugawa Shoguns firearms were explicitly prohibited to the lesser daimyos (nobles.) Private ownership of all weaponry was firmly controlled by the Shogunate, with the result that private feuds and wars could no longer be waged. In the wake of the peace thereby imposed, arms manufacture throughout Japan shrank in importance, and new developments essentially stopped. Correspondingly, this policy ushered in an age of Domestic tranquillity which saw the blossoming of some of Japan’s finest cultural achievements. The visual arts attained great heights. Woodblock prints, paintings, ceramics, iron-working, and textiles from the Edo Period rank among the most valuable artistic treasures in the world. At the same time, performing arts flourished as well. Japan’s theatrical heritage was enriched by masterworks in Kabuki (elaborately staged dramas) and Bunraku (plays staged with puppetry,) as well a wonderfully refined dance and music.

During this period too, scholarship flourished to a surprising degree for such an isolated country. Throughout the Tokugawa Shogunate (1600 – 1860) a limited but steady stream of western learning entered Japan through the small Dutch trading station in Nagasaki, and was widely disseminated throughout Japan. But Japan sent none of her people abroad to study, and invited no outside teachers in. The result was that by Perry’s arrival, Japan was highly developed both culturally and artistically, but was technologically underdeveloped.

Thus it was that Commodore Perry’s mission to Japan relied heavily on the threat of violence without fear of an effective reprisal; Perry’s squadron could easily inflict a punishing bombardment on most any Japanese coastal city. And so Japan’s rulers determined to accede to the demands of the United States and grant some trading concessions, albeit in a very limited and highly restricted fashion. Nevertheless, the genie, as the saying has it, was out of the bottle.

Perry’s insistence upon Japan’s acceptance of U.S. trade led to other Western Powers demanding similar consideration. Within five years, the influence and the demands of the Western nations upon Japan led to internal strife and ultimately revolt. Things began to unravel rapidly, and many of the systemic political problems of the Edo Period which had been festering for generations erupted into open riot and small-scale rebellion. The Tokugawa Shogunate was effectively ended by 1860, and in the power vacuum that followed, a new era of warlord warfare broke out.

In 1863, the Daimyo Mori Takachika of Shimonoseki in southern Japan declared himself no longer bound to the central authority in Edo, and began demanding tolls for all ships that passed through the strategically important Shimonoseki straits. When the ships of Western governments which had hammered out treaties with the Edo government refused to pay the unauthorized tolls, Lord Takachika ordered his soldiers to fire on the ships using some rather antiquated, smoothbore cannon, but also using some recently purchased Western artillery. During the summer of 1863, several Western ships were fired on, mostly with little harm, but one Dutch ship suffered several casualties.

Despite the fact that the United States was in the throes of a great civil war, the United States warship USS Wyoming sailed to respond to this threat, and in a short but fierce battle severely punished the Daimyo’s forces. This strikingly one-sided engagement apparently served as a “wake-up call” for many Japanese: it was clear that simply having modern guns was not sufficient to compete with the Western Powers.

By 1867, a coalition of warlords and progressive intellectuals effected a profound and hugely important change in Japan’s political structure. The Emperor, a position which for almost 1,000 years had been more religious and ceremonial than political, was returned to full power in what became known as the Meiji Restoration. Japan had made a decisive turn toward modernity, technology, and the West.

As I mentioned above, Japan made almost incredible progress in gaining technological prowess. In 1854, Japan had none of the accoutrements of a modern 19th century Power. Within a generation Japan had acquired a modern military, a massive, efficient, and remarkably productive manufacturing infrastructure, and had developed trade and diplomacy on a global scale. Within a second generation, Japan had become an unquestioned Great Power, able to treat on equal footing with major Western Powers. No other nation in the history of the world had ever risen so far so fast.

Perry’s treaty was, as noted, really enacted under coercion. But it is notable in that it was enacted without being born in warfare, nor did it directly spawn warfare. That makes it an unusually important treaty. Warfare between Japan and the United States would not come for almost a century.

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