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Japan and US: Commerce and Competition

Origins of an East-West Trade Link

THE Treaty of Kanagawa, signed on March 31, 1854, was the opening wedge for trade between the United States and Japan. Providing for more humane treatment of American sailors shipwrecked off the coast of Japan and permitting limited trade by Americans at the relatively inaccessible ports of Shimoda and Hakodate, the treaty was a modest achievement when taken at face value, as the American press was quick to observe. But Matthew Calbraith Perry, the man responsible for the agreement, viewed his expedition and the resulting treaty quite differently. In his ``Narrative of the Expedition of an American Squadron to the China Seas and Japan ...,'' the commodore insisted that ``new relations of trade once commenced ... could not, in the progress of events, fail effectually and forever not only to break up the old restrictive policy, and open Japan to the world, but must also lead generally to liberal commercial treaties.'' Japan, he claimed, promised to be ``amongst the most important of eastern nations, with which a profitable trade will be established.''

``Yankees in the Land of the Gods'' confirms the accepted explanation that the American expedition to Japan was motivated by the desire to assure the safety of American sailors, to set up coaling stations for steamships engaged in trade with China, and to establish new markets for American goods. Peter Wiley provides a convincing argument that the expansionist policies of the 1840s and Perry's desire to enhance the stature of the US Navy should also be taken into account, along with the commodore's personal ambition.

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The book is based not only on the official record of the expedition commissioned by Perry, but also on the personal memoirs of other Americans and both public and private Japanese accounts. The result is a sophisticated examination of this historical event.

The documents reveal disagreements among the decisionmakers in Japan as to what course to take in dealing with the Americans. Japan's government, an inefficient and ineffective bureaucracy that had evolved during centuries of feudal rule, was totally unprepared for any encounter with the West.

Political leaders - unsure of their own authority, disturbed by overtures from Russia, and confused by the refusal of the Americans to comply with ancient customs and laws - consulted both the emperor and leading merchants during the negotiations with the Americans. The advice of the merchants prevailed: Opening of trade with the West would stimulate the Japanese economy, temper domestic unrest, and introduce technology important to defense as well as manufacturing.

The refusal of the Americans to honor traditional procedures, ``justified'' by Perry's determination to win the respect of the Japanese, added to the problems of the negotiators. Language differences further compounded the difficulties. Wiley's description of an incident that occurred during Perry's first visit, in July 1853, illustrates both these points.

The commodore had insisted on delivering President Pierce's letter personally to the shogun. Acknowledging receipt, the Japanese sent a message to Perry, which, in English translation, concluded, ``The letter being received, you will leave here.'' Wiley notes that Perry was offended by the ``hortatory tone'' of the missive but observes that he ``was not aware ... that the Japanese version of the letter ... was much sterner in its tone, saying, in effect, that receiving the president's letter at Kurihama was a violation of Japanese law and that the Americans should understand this and depart.''

Perry decided to ``do just the opposite, hoping that moving even closer to Edo [Tokyo] `would produce a decided influence upon the pride and conceit of the government, and cause a more favorable consideration of the President's letter.'''

Such careful analysis enables us to appreciate the reaction of the Japanese to this first official contact with the United States in modern history and its ramifications.

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Although the United States succeeded in working out subsequent trade agreements, the Japanese were better able to protect their own interests in later encounters. Memories of their humiliation, however, continued to rankle, as Wiley points out in his final chapter. At the Japanese surrender in 1945, for example, the Treaty of Kanagawa served as a visible symbol of the subordination of the Japanese by the Americans.

Wiley's descriptions of 19th-century Japan provide texture, and his historical explanations help place the expedition in the larger context of American-Asian events.

The illustrations include maps, diagrams of sailing vessels, a chart explaining the Japanese government, as well as drawings by both Japanese and American artists of central events and key characters. The Japanese renderings are especially valuable in communicating impressions and attitudes.

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