Story of Japan - R. Van Bergen

Japan Opened

The first treaty with Japan was signed. It did not grant many privileges, but our government saw that an opening had been effected, and seized the opportunity to improve it.

In those days hundreds of American ships were trading on the coast of China, and many of our merchants went there themselves, so that they obtained considerable experience in dealing with oriental people. One of these merchants, Townsend Harris, of the state of New York, was appointed the first United States consul in Japan.

When the British and Russians saw that the United States had succeeded in making a treaty, they wanted to obtain the same privileges. England sent an embassy under Lord Elgin, and now, what could the government at Yedo do? The foreigners were not wanted; but the visitors would take no refusal, and Japan was not in condition to defend itself. Should it call the samurai to arms? You may be sure that all would have responded eagerly, but the regent's ministers knew that the utmost courage was no match for modern cannon, and that soldiers with armor and bow and arrow could not defeat the forces that would be sent against them. No, the foreigners must be allowed to come; that was inevitable. But the government could try to keep these barbarians apart from the Japanese, and then if the trade did not prove profitable, they would, perhaps, go away of their own accord.

But these foreigners, now they had once entered, were not satisfied to remain cooped up. They did not obey the officers appointed to watch them, but would claim that they had rights which they would uphold, even if the government did not wish them to do so.

And then there was trouble at home. The regent was dead, and had left no son. The daimio of Mito, a descendant of Iyeyasu, wanted one of his sons appointed; but that did not suit the daimio of Hikone (hee-koh'-nay), who was prime minister, and a very able but unscrupulous man. If Mito's son were appointed, his father would be the real regent, and Ii Naosuke (ee-ee-nah-oh-skay), the Lord of Hikone, wished to retain his power. Ii gained the day, and his candidate, Iyemochi (ee-yay-moh-chee), succeeded as regent.

But now the foreigners were no longer satisfied with the port of Shimoda. There had been a tidal wave, and the Diana, a Russian man-of-war, had been wrecked in Shimoda, so that port was considered unsafe. At last the regent's government was compelled to allow them to come and live in Kanagawa (kah-nah-gah-wah).

And what do you think the Japanese samurai thought of all this? They had no idea at all of the strength and power of these foreigners. All they did know was that Japan, the land of the gods, had been invaded by them, and that they had forced the Tokugawa regents to give them a part of the sacred soil of their country. It is true that there were only a few of these barbarians now, but in the eyes of the Japanese theirs was such a desirable country that they feared these uninvited guests would be only the forerunners of the host that was to follow. And these Tokugawa had admitted them! They had submitted to the demands of the Tojin (toh-jin), that is, foreign imps, under threats! And thus a vague dread changed into hatred, and, "Down with the Tokugawa! Expel the barbarian!" became the rallying cry of Japan's warriors.

[Illustration] from The Story of Japan by R. Van Bergen


The foreign ministers knew nothing of the excitement caused by their admittance into Japan. In the treaty the regent had taken the title of Dai Kun (ty-coon), which means Great Prince, and although they had heard of a Mikado (Tennô), they were satisfied with the treaty made by the regent. Not so, however, the samurai. They knew now that the regent was only a servant of the Tennô, and that he had no authority whatever to give an inch of Japan's soil to these strangers. Yet he had done so. And now the daimio of Mito, his kinsman, remonstrated with him, and stated very plainly that all these acts were unlawful, because they had not been sanctioned by the Tennô.

And how was it in Kyoto? There the governor of the Yedo government kept a strict guard. Yet several great court nobles, or kuge (koo-gay), were watching with anxious eyes for the result of this new disturbance. I must tell you the names of two of these kuge, Sanjo and Iwakura (ee-wah-koo-rah), for they took a leading part in the revolution now so near at hand. These kuge, though poor, and supported, with the emperor's household, out of the scant allowance paid by the wealthy regents, were, in the eyes of the Japanese, superior in rank to the most powerful daimio, and even to the regent himself. Another man who was to take a prominent part in the making of New Japan,—a man closely related to the Tennô himself, whose title of Miya (mee-yah), or Temple, showed the high rank he held in the structure of which the Heaven Child was the cornerstone,—Prince Arisugawa (ah-ree-soo-gah-wah), was there to prompt the emperor to such action as his advisers might decide upon. It was evident that the influence of the Tokugawa was waning. And the kuge resolved to watch the course of events, and in the meanwhile to enter into communication with the daimio of the southern clans; for if the Tokugawa were to be overthrown, it must be done by them.

But a feud existed between the two wealthiest and most warlike of these clans, Satsuma and Choshiu, a feud carefully nursed by the government in Yedo. In both clans, however, there were, among the samurai, able men of great power and influence. Okubo (oh-koo-boh)  and Saigo Takamori (si-goh tah-kah-moh-ree), and Kido (kee-do),—the first two Satsuma men, the last belonging to the Choshiu clan—saw that a union was necessary to overcome the strong power of the Tokugawa, and that there was only one authority in Japan that could bring the clans together, and that was the Tennô in Kyoto. They proceeded to that city, and placed themselves in communication with the kuge Sanjo and Iwakura, and it was decided to raise the cry of "Yamato Damashii (Spirit of Old Japan)! Expel the barbarians!"

Their main object was to save Japan from an invasion by foreigners, and then to punish the Tokugawa regents for the danger and disgrace they had brought upon their country. They did not and could not see any further. But after these purposes were accomplished, they could decide as to the future.

The foreigners now insisted that certain ports should be opened, where they could buy property, build houses, and trade. But in theory, at least, all the soil of Japan belonged to the Tennô, and how could the regent deed it away? Still the foreigners would take no refusal, and at last the government of Yedo promised to set apart some land in Kanagawa, where they could build their houses and live. It was, however, with great misgivings that this promise was made.

When the time came, Mr. Townsend Harris arrived and raised the American flag. But the merchants did not like Kanagawa, which is on a high bluff on the bay, where at ebb tide the water runs out and leaves extensive mud banks. They preferred the site of a little fishing village on the beach, Yokohama, and when the request for the change was made the Yedo government eagerly assented. For Kanagawa is on the main road by which all the southern daimio with their numerous escorts of samurai must pass on their annual journey to and from Yedo; and the regent's ministers foresaw trouble if the independent foreign merchants and the haughty samurai should meet.

The new treaty was signed in 1858, and the foreign settlement of Yokohama was begun in 1859. An American, Dr. Hall, who was with Mr. Townsend Harris, bought the first lot, and began building a handsome residence in our style of architecture.

Now foreign vessels began to arrive in Yokohama, for the Japanese people were glad to buy goods made abroad. But hundreds of samurai saw in the arrival of peaceful merchants the beginning of an invasion of their country, and thought that the best thing they could do was to cut down as many of these invaders as possible; and murders of foreigners in Yokohama became very frequent. The government dared not arrest the murderers, for very often they were prominent samurai of powerful clans. The foreign ministers demanded money for the men who were assassinated, or else that their murderers should be brought to justice, and the regent's government paid the money. A midshipman from the boat of a Russian man-of-war which had come to the beach for water, was almost cut in two by the sharp sword of a samurai. The government could not deliver up the murderer, so the Russian minister demanded that the northern half of the island of Saghalien (sah-gah-leen)  should be given to Russia, and the Yedo government granted the demand. This looked very much as though the fears of the samurai that Japan might be divided among the foreigners were not groundless. The number of rônin increased, and it became dangerous for foreigners in Yokohama, even in broad daylight.

The foreign ministers had moved to Yedo, where each was given a temple to reside in, with a strong guard of Tokugawa samurai. But although the government did all it could to protect them, their residences were set on fire, and frequently they were attacked in the night. They were puzzled to know the reason of this hatred. The Japanese people—that is, the farmers, the merchants, and mechanics—were polite and civil, and showed no dislike for the foreigners. We know, now, however, that the samurai thought that their country was in danger, and they were willing to sacrifice their lives to drive the invaders away.

The ministers and the members of the legations were warned against going out. But one day Mr. Heusken, the secretary of the American minister, while on his way home, was cut down and killed. The Japanese government paid for this murder, but the assassin was never discovered. The other ministers decided to move to Yokohama, but Mr. Harris thought it best to remain in Yedo.

The government now committed a serious blunder. Thinking that it could appease the great clans by making some concessions, it abolished the law requiring the daimio to reside every other half year in Yedo. The samurai saw that the regent or his prime minister was afraid of them, and it only made them the bolder. The prime minister, Ii Naosuke, was the special object of their hatred, for he was considered the author of the treaties and the cause of the admission to Japan of the detested foreigners.

The daimio of Mito had not forgiven him for preventing his son from succeeding as regent, and he openly blamed the prime minister, while he praised the samurai who attacked defenseless foreigners. Ii punished him by banishing him to his seat in Mito. This was an insult to the clan which, according to the samurai code of honor, could only be wiped out in blood. Ii's life had been in constant danger, and he had taken precautions, but now his death was only a question of time.

On March 23, 1860, there was a heavy snowstorm in Yedo. Only those who were forced to leave their homes were hurrying through the deserted, snow-covered streets. After the prime minister had ordered his norimono (sedan chair) to proceed to the castle, his topknot became unfastened. This was such a sign of ill omen, that his attendants begged him to omit, or at least postpone, his daily visit. But Ii only laughed, and, as soon as his hair had been dressed, left his yashiki, with his escort. His samurai, to defend themselves against the inclement weather, had put on kimono (kee-moh-noh)—cotton gowns worn by men and women alike—and wore besides straw rain coats. As they were approaching the Sakura (sah-koo-rah)  gate of the castle, the vanguard of the escort had an altercation with some people who seemed to be lounging there. The norimono halted, and Ii looked out to inquire into the cause of this stopping. Before the rear guard could run up, and throw off their rain coats to draw their swords, the norimono was surrounded by rônin, the prime minister's head was cut off, and the murderers escaped with their ghastly trophy. The head was taken to Mito, where it was placed upon a pike over the castle gate.

Among the clans who showed especial hostility to the admittance of foreigners was that of Choshiu in the south. Two young samurai of this clan, Ito (ee-to)  and Inouye (ee-noo-yay), disregarding the risk of punishment by death if ever they should return to Japan, resolved to go to Europe and see for themselves if there was really any plan for the conquest of Japan. They obtained a passage to England, where they supported themselves in humble capacities, and mastered the English language. As soon as they were able to read and understand the newspapers, they discovered that nothing threatened the independence of their country, but they stood aghast when they fully comprehended how far Japan was behind the times. They returned to Japan at a critical time, when their services were valuable not only to their clan but also to their late hosts.

And here let me call attention to the all-absorbing love of country, so universal among the samurai. For their country's benefit these young men were willing to go among strangers, where they were treated with contempt as barbarians,—strangers, too, whose manners and customs were repugnant to them; and they were even content to serve them in a menial capacity, doing the humblest kind of work. For Ito, who was prime minister of Japan for many years, and who wrote the constitution, and Inouye, who was minister of state, ambassador to Korea, and held other prominent positions in the government, worked in England as house servants.

Choshiu's samurai were plotting in Kyoto, and Saigo Takamori, a very influential Satsuma samurai, whose sad story I shall tell you in another chapter, was helping them. But the plot leaked out, and the leading kuge were banished. Soon after this the Satsuma and Choshiu clans refused to obey any more orders from the regent, and when the Tokugawa sent an army to punish Choshiu, the government troops were badly defeated.

This emboldened these southern clans to begin open war upon the foreigners. If you look at the map of Japan, you will see that the southern part of Hondo is separated from the northern part of Kiushiu by the Straits of Shimonoseki (shee-moh-noh-say-kee). The government of Yedo had granted to foreigners the right to sail through these waters, but Choshiu, in whose territory Shimonoseki was situated, erected batteries, and when an American merchant ship, the Pembroke, was passing through the Straits, the Choshiu batteries opened fire upon her.

It happened that a sloop of war, the Wyoming, was in Yokohama harbor, where she had arrived after an unsuccessful search for the Alabama, the Confederate vessel that was doing so much harm to the merchantmen of the North. The American minister in Yedo now came to the conclusion that the regent's government was unable to control the southern daimio, and that, if these constant assaults were to cease, they must be stopped by the foreigners themselves; so he conferred with Captain David MacDougal of the Wyoming, who was quite willing to teach the Choshiu clan respect for the American flag.

He left for Shimonoseki and entered the Straits July 16, 1863. There were a steamer and a brig belonging to Choshiu, lying close in shore and under the batteries. The Choshiu samurai were glad enough to fight, but they were taken aback not a little when this single vessel, by skillful handling, in one hour and a half sunk their brig, blew up their steamer, and destroyed one of their batteries. They had also fired upon a French dispatch vessel, and a man-of-war of that nation destroyed another battery. But these defeats did not discourage the warriors of Choshiu. They needed another lesson before they would acknowledge that they were not so strong as these "foreign devils."

While this was going on in the south, the samurai of Choshiu, who had made Kyoto their headquarters, made an attempt to take the palace and to carry off the Tennô, because then they could issue orders in his name, and the regent in Yedo would be a rebel if he disobeyed their commands. But Satsuma and another clan rushed to the defense of the Tennô, because the Satsuma samurai did not want Choshiu to take the place of the Tokugawa, and at this time there were but a few individuals in Japan who had ever thought that the Heaven Child himself should engage in temporal affairs. The prevailing desire was to reclaim the government from the Tokugawa and to appoint a stronger man as barbarian-expelling regent. Many clans were ambitious to acquire this honor, but the most prominent were Satsuma, Choshiu, and Tosa. A battle was fought in the streets of Kyoto, where thirty thousand houses were destroyed by fire. Choshiu was defeated, and that clan was prohibited from ever reentering the capital.

The representative of the Satsuma clan was in Kyoto and proposed to escort to Yedo one of the kuge who was charged by the court with orders from the Tennô to the regent; commanding him to expel the barbarians. The prime minister had been informed of the purpose of this journey, and when Satsuma arrived in Yedo, refused to receive him. The old lord and his retainers were in no pleasant mood when they began their long return march.

Dueling with swords


They had gone about fourteen miles, with all the pomp of the Middle Ages, when they met a party of foreigners on horseback. They were three Englishmen and a lady. One of them, Mr. Richardson, was a merchant from Shanghai on his way to England for a vacation. They were going to visit a temple at Kawasaki (kah-wah-sah-kee)  when they met Satsuma's escort. Japanese etiquette demanded that people on horseback should dismount while the procession of a daimio passed. It does not appear whether Mr. Richardson and his friends knew of this rule; but, even if they did, foreigners were not expected to conform to the rules of courtesy of the Japanese. It is said, however, that Mr. Richardson guided his horse through the procession, which, if true, was a foolhardy proceeding. Be that as it may, sharp swords flew out of their scabbards, and in a few minutes Mr. Richardson was lying weltering in his blood, while Mr. King, another member of the party, was severely wounded in the arm. The two unwounded foreigners, accompanied by Mr. King, who with difficulty kept his saddle, were soon flying back to Kanagawa, where Dr. Hepburn, an American medical missionary, attended to the wounded man.

When reports of this attack reached Yokohama, indignation meetings were held, and many residents were anxious to go in a body, overtake the Satsuma procession, and take summary vengeance. It was with difficulty that wiser counsels prevailed. The British minister gave the Yedo government a limited time to deliver up the murderer. But how could the regent order the arrest of a Satsuma samurai, especially while he was with his clan? The time passed, and Satsuma was to receive a lesson. The British fleet proceeded to Kagoshima, Satsuma's chief city, and bombarded it. The Yedo government was then fined five hundred thousand dollars, and Satsuma twenty-five thousand dollars. Both sums were paid, but the murderer escaped arrest.

It was no murder in the eyes of the Satsuma samurai, or in those of any of the other clans, but a necessary act, demanded by the loyalty due to the clan. And when the ugly mood of the men composing Satsuma's escort is taken into consideration, it seems a wonder that any of the party escaped. The government of Yedo was not sorry that Satsuma's pride had been humbled; while the samurai of that clan, known as the bravest of all the brave Japanese samurai, were astounded that they could have been beaten by these foreigners. And they resolved from that time on to master the secret of the barbarian's strength, and to acquire his knowledge. It was the desire to be able to defeat us with our own weapons, combined with the untiring patience of the Japanese character, that led to those changes in Japan which we call its progress, and which so long have seemed inexplicable.

Choshiu, in the meanwhile, continued firing upon vessels passing through the Straits of Shimonoseki, and the ministers of four nations, the United States, England, France, and Holland, made up their minds to punish him. Seventeen men-of-war belonging to those powers attacked Choshiu's forts. The samurai defended themselves bravely, but the Choshiu forts were taken and destroyed. When the clan began negotiations for peace, the two young samurai, Ito and Inouye, returned from England just in time to take an active part in them. They assured their fellow samurai that the fear of an invasion of Japan by a foreign power was baseless. When they were satisfied of this fact, which spread with great rapidity among the two-sworded class, the opposition to foreigners ceased. But the insult to the clan was neither forgiven nor forgotten, and Choshiu, too, decided to dissemble until the samurai had acquired the secret of the barbarians' strength.

Both the Satsuma and Choshiu samurai were now strongly in favor of admitting these foreigners under certain restrictions. They would need them as instructors; they would need also to purchase from them their terrible engines of war. It was now agreed among the ministers of the four powers that the government of Yedo should be given the choice between paying an indemnity of three millions of dollars and opening new ports. It preferred paying the money, and each nation received one fourth, or seven hundred and fifty thousand dollars. The United States afterwards returned its share.

Satsuma and Choshiu were now more than ever determined that the Yedo government must fall, and since all the clans, the Tokugawa and their allies excepted, would rally under the Tennô, they would spare no efforts to get hold of the emperor's person, and to use his authority to form a new government. The regent Iyemochi died in the summer of 1866, and Mito's son, Hitotsubashi Tokugawa (stots' bashee)  was appointed to succeed him.