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The Myth of America’s Opening of Japan

December 30, 2008

By November 2008 I offered two essays on Japanese history to Japan Times, my favorite English newspaper in Japan. But it took them more than two month to come back to me and then they offered to publish only a short summary of those two essays. I declined, because it doesn’t make sense. This is why I publish them here because I think that everybody should know the whole story

Rethinking the History of Japan II

The Myth of America’s ‘Opening of Japan’

The opening of Japan in 1854/1855 after more than two centuries of almost total isolation, along with the battle of Sekigahara in 1600 and genbaku, the dropping of the atomic bombs in 1945, is one of the three major milestones in Japanese history. With the victory of Ieyasu at Sekigahara the reign of the Tokugawa dynasty began, during which Iyemitsu, the third shogun, instituted the systematic isolation of the country. His sakoku edict of 1635 literally put the “country in chains”. Under the Tokugawa dictatorship Japan turned into a brutal police state replete with spies, informers and traitors. However, in one main respect, this political doctrine proved highly successful: preserving peace following centuries of civil war during the dreadful sengoku period. Since the beginning of recorded history no major country in the world has experienced such a long period of peace. With a duration of 219 years – not counting the 35 years of peace between the battle of Sekigahara and the sakoku edict – it proved longer than the legendary Pax Romana from 27 BC to 180 AD. However the price was high. While the ever belligerent western nations grew with their wars and colonial conquests in terms of both power and their knowledge in a range of industries, arts and sciences, the intellectual and industrial assets of Japan had stagnated throughout this whole period of violent peace. When the colonial powers knocked once again at Japan’s doors in the early 19th century, the country was underdeveloped, and, with its highly regulated and monopolistic industries, unprepared and unwilling to participate in any form of competitive international trade. However the colonial powers were determined to convince Japan of the necessity of precisely such an undertaking – by negotiation or by force. The number of serious diplomatic approaches, for more or less peaceful negotiations of this claim, conducted by Great Britain, the Netherlands, Denmark, France, Russia and America since 1790 amounted to approximately two dozen. In this context, it is almost possible to understand the United States’ impatience with this repeated “No”, and their decision to send Admiral Perry with an armed fleet in 1853, issuing Japan a clear ultimatum. But what really happened between the arrival of the Black Ships in Shimoda and the day in 1855 when the American Congress awarded Perry 20,000 US$ for his achievements in Japan? Had he, had America “opened Japan” to American trade, or even better, to international free trade, as everybody seems to believe? Do history textbooks around the world present us with the historical facts on this issue? Is it true what the website of the Naval Museum in Washington still asserts, namely that the Treaty of Kanagawa not only secured the provision of fuel for American ships “…but also opened the opportunity for trade between Japan and the United States. The signing of this treaty signaled the end of Japanese isolation“?

Three major treaties were signed between Japan and foreign powers between March 1854 and February 1855 marking the “Opening of Japan”. These were the treaties of Kanagawa, Nagasaki and Shimoda, signed by Japan and the United States, Great Britain and Russia respectively. When Perry arrived at the Bay of Uraga on the 8th July 1853 he conveyed a letter from the American president Fillmore to the Japanese Emperor. In solemn words, the president showed himself in search of peaceful relations, kind treatment of shipwrecked Americans and the supply of provisions, coal and water for the occasional stopover of American steamships. Concerning mutual trade, Fillmore urged the Emperor to lift the prohibition and to suspend the ancient laws for a transition period of five or ten years. Reluctantly accepting the letter, as it was unthinkable that the Emperor would negotiate with a foreigner, the Japanese authorities told Perry that the answer would take some time and that he should come back in spring 1854. Before leaving, Perry made clear that he would consider an unfavorable answer as an affront to the United States. In such an event he emphasized that the consequences would be grave, and, in a derisory gesture, left two white flags with the officials, underlining they would be useful in the case of surrender.

Shortly after Perry’s departure, the Russian expedition under Vice-Admiral Putiatin arrived in Nagasaki. The Russians had followed the advise of the German physician Philipp Franz von Siebold, who, following his adventurous years in Nagasaki between 1823 and 1830, was the most knowledgeable person on Japanese affairs in the western world. He had instructed the Russian expedition that Nagasaki was still the only port open to foreigners and that they should not adopt the same aggressive approach as Perry. However, the Japanese authorities in Nagasaki were equally unreceptive to the letter from the Russian Count von Nesselrode, handed over on 21 September 1853, despite being addressed to the Senior Council of Japan, as opposed to making any inappropriate demands on the Emperor himself. They procrastinated and asked Putiatin to come back later. Before he left, the Japanese plenipotentiaries promised not to sign a treaty with any other country before closing negotiations with Russia. Yet when he arrived in Osaka in October of the following year, this promise of priority had just been broken for the second time, Japan having already signed treaties with the United States and England. Nevertheless Putiatin traveled to Shimoda and resumed negotiations with the plenipotentiaries, which began on the 22nd December 1854 in the Fukusen temple.

However the negotiations were soon to be accompanied by a series of dramatic events. The next day Japan was struck by an earthquake with an estimated magnitude of 8.4 on the Richter scale. This was followed by a tsunami, a wall of water 7 meters high that destroyed Shimoda and severely damaged the Russian ship Diana by throwing it against the rocks. In this chaotic situation Putiatin ordered his crew to rescue as many Japanese as possible from the deluge. They succeeded in bringing them ashore once the flood had finally subsided, but the following day the Diana sunk. Thus the Russian mission was without a vessel and the shipwrecked crew was at the mercy of the Japanese government. Yet instead of being simply killed as Shimazu Nariakira, the highly influential lord of Satsuma had recommended, the struggling Russian expedition and the equally beleaguered Japanese were united by the tragedy. The atmosphere of the negotiations completely turned around. Following the initial period of disdain and hostility, the Japanese and Russian delegates now expressed mutual admiration and true friendship developed. After the signing of the Treaty of Shimoda on the 7th February 1855 the Japanese government allowed the 586 Russians who were at risk in Shimoda to be attacked by English or French ships – it was the time of the Crimean War – to cross Izu peninsula on foot and to look for a save shelter in a secluded village. It also ordered Japanese shipwrights to build a new ship with the help of the Russians, learning western naval architecture in the process. This first joint Russian-Japanese vessel was ready by May 1855. It was baptized by the new-found friends as Heda after the village where it was built. Putiatin left Japan stating that “my heart shall remain here forever.”

What was the result of Russia’s completely different approach to Japan and the fortune in misfortune accompanying the signing? How did the Treaty of Shimoda differ from the Japanese-American Treaty of Kanagawa? Unfortunately, the answers to these questions have been obscured until recently due to the reliance of the majority of authors and academics on the account of events related in Narrative of the Expedition of an American Squadron to the China Seas and Japan, written by Francis L. Hawks in 1856 under the supervision of Admiral Perry himself. Hawks was ignorant of the content of the Treaties of Nagasaki and Shimoda, but notwithstanding, he stated that ”… Their treaties are like ours. That of Russia is copied from ours, with no change [… ] We respectfully submit, therefore, that all, and indeed more than all, that, under that circumstances, could reasonably have been expected, has been accomplished.” Since then, history textbooks around the world have told the story of America’s ‘Opening of Japan’.

It was only in 2005 that the German researcher Edgar Franz threw new light on this matter by publishing a book on Philipp Franz von Siebold and Russian Policy and Action on Opening Japan to the West. At the German castle of Brandenstein he was granted access to the archives of the descendants of the Siebold family. There he found a quantity of documents that had never been considered before. He compared Siebold’s letters, plans and drafts to unpublished documents from the Russian Central State Archives of the Navy in St. Petersburg that had recently been opened to the public, as well as to Japanese governmental documents from 1852 to 1855. Siebold’s diplomatic activities in this period, in respect of Russia and the opening of Japan, were almost unknown. However, during the course of his investigations, Franz not only discovered the signal importance of Siebold’s influence on Russia’s policy towards Japan. More interestingly, although this was only an incidental result of his analysis, he was able to recalibrate the received ideas in respect of the entire process known as the ‘Opening of Japan’. As an aside, Franz made a detailed comparison of the three major treaties and the circumstances under which they were drawn up, negotiated and finally signed.

The conclusion of Edgar Franz’s thorough investigation is unambiguous: “Comparison of the Treaties of Shimoda, Kanagawa and Nagasaki showed that the Treaty of Shimoda [with Russia] was the most important of the three treaties of 1854/1855 which led to the opening of Japan.” The analysis of the newly discovered documents on Siebold’s activities and on the policy of the Russian government “…prove, beyond any doubt, that […] the opening of Japan for trade and navigation to all nations in the middle of the 19th century were influenced by Philipp Franz von Siebold to a much greater extent than previously believed.”

For a better understanding of the process of “opening” from the Japanese perspective, we first have to analyze what defined the previous “closing”. The main features of the policy of isolationism, as decreed by the sakoku edict of 1635, and several other edicts issued during the early years of the Tokugawa era, were the prohibition of Catholicism, of trade with foreigners and of foreigners entering Japan and taking up residence on Japanese soil. However the isolation was not total as the bakufu left some gateways open. Most importantly, it permitted trade with the Dutch factory on Dejima, primarily because this was a privilege formerly granted by the sacred founder of the dynasty, Tokugawa Ieyasu. Apart from this one exception, the bakufu followed the strict rules of the edicts in all other points. The Dutch merchants were only allowed to live on Dejima as it was built as an artificial island and thus didn’t constitute sacred Japanese ground. So, did the Treaty of Kanagawa between Japan and the United States of America break any of the strict rules of the sakoku? No, it did not. It neither allowed trade between Japanese and Americans, nor did it permit American citizens to reside on Japanese soil. It was no more than a shipwreck convention that guaranteed the safety of American crews tossed onto Japanese shores and the supply of necessary provisions. Similarly, the Treaty of Nagasaki between Japan and England failed to grant any further privileges. This is exactly where Putiatin reached a breakthrough. Not only did he successfully negotiate permission to trade with Japan, he also secured the privilege of a Russian consulate in Japan and the right of Russians to live within this consulate according to their own customs and laws. This is the definition of extraterritoriality that has only been granted to the Russians. Thus the Treaty of Shimoda between Japan and Russia is the document that truly opened up Japan, lifting the strict veil of sakoku that had been hiding Japan from foreign eyes for the first time. Furthermore, Russia’s envoy Vice-Admiral Putiatin succeeded in negotiating this opening of Japan in a spirit of mutual understanding and friendship.

Edgar Franz’s conclusions were confirmed by William McOmie’s voluminous study The Opening of Japan 1853 – 1855 which was published one year later in 2006. McOmie states: “Article V [of the Treaty of Shimoda] allowed the Russians to exchange desired goods and property for goods, property and money brought, in Shimoda and Hakodate only. It seemed to allow a more general exchange of money and goods and to approach more closely to the idea of ‘trade’ without calling it that, than did the corresponding Article VII in the American treaty […] Although the treaty gave no specific permission to trade, it seemed to have clear advantages over previous agreements.”

While the British government was highly dissatisfied with the outcome of Admiral Sir James Stirling’s negotiations as documented in the Treaty of Nagasaki, Admiral Perry, who had hardly achieved any better, was welcomed as a hero in the United States. Right up until his death in 1858, resulting from liver cirrhosis following decades of alcoholism, Perry may have lived in the belief that he had opened-up Japan, just as he believed that he had negotiated with the Japanese Emperor. Today we can see that both these claims were unfounded and that it is time to rethink the history of Japan. Again we see the importance of Siebold’s activities. He had another kind of ‘Opening of Japan’ in mind and, ultimately, he had made an important contribution to a better outcome, as a close examination of the historical records has revealed a quite different chronology and causality of events. America conducted a highly successful marketing campaign with its story of the ‘Opening of Japan’. However, it is time to go back to the facts and for Japan to reopen the dusty files on one of the most important moments in its history. It may have much to gain by doing so.

© Reginald Grünenberg is an author and publisher in Berlin/Germany. In 2008 he attended the European Commission’s ETP Executive Training Programme at Waseda University ( His historical novel Shiboruto about Philipp Franz von Siebold will be published in 2009 in Germany.


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