Historical Tales: 12—Japanese and Chinese - Charles Morris

The Opening of Japan

On the 8th of July, 1853, the Japanese were treated to a genuine surprise. Off Cape Idsu, the outer extremity of the Bay of Yedo, appeared a squadron of war-vessels bound inward under full sail, in bold disregard of the lines of prohibition which Japan had drawn across the entrance of all her ports. Rounding the high mountains of the promontory of Idsu, by noon the fleet reached Cape Sagami, which forms the dividing line between the outer and inner sections of the Bay of Yedo. Here the shores rose in abrupt bluffs, furrowed by green dells, while in the distance could be seen groves and cultivated fields. From the cape a number of vessels put out to intercept the squadron, but, heedless of these, it kept on through the narrow part of the bay—from five to eight miles wide—and entered the inner bay, which expands to a width of more than fifteen miles. Here the ships dropped anchor within full view of the town of Uragawa, having broken through the invisible bonds which Japan had so long drawn around her coasts.

During the period between the release of the Russian captives and the date of this visit various foreign vessels had appeared on the coast of Japan, each with some special excuse for its presence, yet each arbitrarily ordered to leave. One of these, an American trading vessel, the Morrison, had been driven off with musketry and artillery, although she had come to return a number of shipwrecked Japanese. Some naval vessels had entered the Bay of Yedo, but had been met with such vigorous opposition that they made their visits very short, and as late as 1850 the Japanese notified foreign nations that they proposed to maintain their rigorous system of exclusion. No dream came to them of the remarkable change in their policy which a few decades were to bring forth.

They did not know that they were seeking to maintain an impossible situation. China had adopted a similar policy, but already the cannon-balls of foreign powers had produced a change of view. If Japan had not peaceably yielded, the hard hand of war must soon have broken down her bars. For in addition to Russia there was now another civilized power with ports on the Pacific, the United States. And the fleets of the European powers were making their way in growing numbers to those waters. In a period when all the earth was being opened to commercial intercourse, Japan could not hope long to remain a little world in herself, like a separate planet in space.

It was the settlement of California, and the increase of American interests on the Pacific, that induced the United States to make a vigorous effort to open the ports of Japan. Hitherto all nations had yielded to the resolute policy of the islanders; now it was determined to send an expedition with instructions not to take no for an answer, but to insist on the Japanese adopting the policy of civilized nations in general. It was with this purpose that the fleet in question had entered the Bay of Yedo. It was under command of Commodore Matthew C. Perry, who bore a letter from the President of the United States to the Emperor of Japan, suggesting the desirability of commercial relations between the two countries, requesting the supply of American vessels with coal and provisions, and demanding the kind treatment and prompt return of shipwrecked mariners. This letter, splendidly engrossed, was enclosed in a golden box of a thousand dollars in value, and was accompanied by numerous presents. The fleet consisted of the steam-frigates Susquehanna  and Mississippi  and the sloops-of-war Plymouth  and Saratoga, being the most imposing armament that had ever entered a Japanese port. Perry was determined to maintain his dignity as a representative of the United States, and to demand as a right, instead of soliciting as a favor, the courtesies due from one civilized nation to another.

The ships had no sooner dropped anchor in the bay than several guns were fired from a neighboring point and a number of boats put off from the shore. In the stern of each were a small flag and several men wearing two swords, evidently persons in authority. These boats were stopped at the ships' sides, and their inmates told that no person could be admitted on board except the principal official of the town, the high rank of the commodore forbidding him to meet any lesser dignitary. As one of the visitors represented that he was second in rank in the town, he was finally received on board the flag-ship, but the commodore declined to see him, turning him over to Mr. Contee, the flag lieutenant.

A long interview followed, in which the official was made to understand that the expedition bore a letter from the President of the United States to the emperor, a message of such importance that it could be delivered only to an officer of high rank. He was also told, through the interpreters, that the squadron would not submit to be placed under guard, and that all the guard-boats must withdraw. The official displayed much of the inquisitive curiosity for which the Japanese had made themselves notable on former occasions, and asked a variety of unimportant questions which the lieutenant refused to answer, saying that they were impertinent.

The Japanese officer had brought with him the ordinary notifications, warning all ships against entering their ports, but these the lieutenant refused to receive. Returning to the shore, in about an hour the officer came back, saying that his superior could not receive the letter addressed to the emperor, and stating that Nagasaki was the proper place for foreign ships to stop. As for the letter, he doubted if it would be received and answered. He was at once given to understand that if the governor of the town did not send for the letter, the ships would proceed up the bay to Yedo and deliver it themselves. At this he withdrew in a state of great agitation, asking permission to return in the morning.

During the night watch-fires blazed at points along the coast, and bells sounded the hours. The watch-boats remained around the fleet, but kept at a respectful distance from the perilous intruders. The next morning the highest official of the town came on board, but did his utmost to avoid receiving the letter. In the end he offered to send to Yedo for permission, and was granted three days for this purpose.

While awaiting an answer the ships were not idle. Surveying parties were sent four miles up the bay, sounding, and finding everywhere a depth of from thirty to forty fathoms. As they approached the forts armed soldiers came out, but retired again when the boats drew nearer. The forts, five in number, were very feeble, their total armament consisting of fourteen guns, none larger than nine-pounders. Many of the soldiers were armed with spears. Canvas screens were stretched from tree to tree, as if with the idea that these would keep back cannon-balls. In truth, the means of defence were so slight that Yedo lay at the mercy of the American fleet.

Villages seemed to line the shores in an unbroken series, and numerous small craft lay in the harbor, while trading vessels came in and out with little regard to the presence of the foreign ships. Every day there passed up and down the bay nearly a hundred large junks and a great number of fishing and other boats.

Yezaimon, the governor of the town, protested earnestly against the survey of the waters by the ships, saying that it was against the laws of Japan. He was told that it was commanded by the laws of America, and the soundings went steadily on. On the second day the surveying party proceeded some ten miles up the bay, the Mississippi  steaming in their wake. This roused new agitation in the Japanese, government boats meeting them at every point and making earnest signs to them to return. But no notice was taken of these gestures, and the survey was continued, deep soundings and soft bottom being found throughout.

In the evening Yezaimon came on board with a cheerful countenance, saying that he expected good news from Yedo, though he protested still against the doings of the boats. One of the officers speaks of him as a "gentleman, clever, polished, well informed, a fine, large man, about thirty-four, of most excellent countenance, taking his wine freely, and a boon companion."

On the 12th word came that the emperor would send a high officer to receive the letter. No immediate answer would be given, but one would be forwarded through the Dutch or the Chinese. This offer the commodore rejected as insulting. But, fearing that he might be detained by useless delay, he agreed to withdraw for a proper interval, at the end of which he would return to receive the answer.

On the 14th the reception of the letter took place, the occasion being made orate of much ceremony. The commodore landed with due formality, through a line of Japanese boats, and with a following of three hundred and twenty officers and sailors from the fleet. Passing through a large body of soldiers, behind whom stood a crowd of spectators, the building prepared for the reception was reached. It was a temporary structure, the reception-room of which was hung with fine cloth, stamped with the imperial symbols in white on a violet background. The princes of Idsu and Iwami awaited as the envoys of the shogun, both of them splendidly attired in richly embroidered robes of silk.

A large scarlet-lacquered box, on gilded feet, stood ready to receive the letter, which, after being shown in its rich receptacle, was placed on the scarlet box, with translations in Dutch and Chinese. A formal receipt was given, ending with the following words: "Because the place is not designed to treat of anything from foreigners, so neither can conference nor entertainment take place. The letter being received, you will leave here."

"I shall return again, probably in April or May, for an answer," said the commodore, on receiving the receipt.

"With all the ships?" asked the interpreter.

"Yes, and probably with more," was the reply.

This said, the commodore rose and departed, the commissioners standing, but not another word being uttered on either side. As if to indicate to his hosts how little he regarded the curt order to leave, the commodore proceeded in the Susquehanna  up the bay to the point the Mississippi  had reached. Here he dropped anchor, the spot being afterwards known as the "American anchorage." On the following day he sent the Mississippi  ten miles higher up, a point being reached within eight or ten miles of the capital. Three or four miles in advance a crowded mass of shipping was seen, supposed to be at Sinagawa, the southern suburb of Yedo. On the 16th the vessels moved down the bay, and on the following day they stood out to sea, no doubt greatly to the relief of the Japanese officials.

In consequence of the death of the shogun, which took place soon after, Perry did not return for his answer until the following year, casting anchor again in the Bay of Yedo on February 12, 1854. He had now a larger fleet, consisting of three steam-frigates, four sloops-of-war, and two store-ships. Entering the bay, they came to anchor at the point known as the "American anchorage."

And now a debate arose as to where the ceremonies of reception should take place. The Japanese wished the commodore to withdraw to a point down the bay, some twenty miles below Uragawa. He, on the contrary, insisted on going to Yedo, and sent boats up to within four miles of that city to sound the channel. Finally the village of Yokohama, opposite the anchorage of the ships, was fixed upon.

On the 8th of March the first reception took place, great formality being observed, though this time light refreshments were offered. Two audiences a week were subsequently held, at one of which, on March 13, the American presents were delivered. They consisted of cloths, agricultural implements, fire-arms, and other articles, the most valuable being a small locomotive, tender, and car, which were set in motion on a circular track. A mile of telegraph wire was also set up and operated, this interesting the Japanese more than anything else. They had the art, however, of concealing their feelings, and took care to show no wonder at anything displayed.

In the letter of reply from the shogun it was conceded that the demands in relation to shipwrecked sailors, coal, provisions, water, etc., were just, and there was shown a willingness to add a new harbor to that of Nagasaki, but five years' delay in its opening were asked. To this the commodore would not accede, nor would he consent to be bound by the restrictions placed on the Dutch and Chinese. He demanded three harbors, one each in Hondo, Yezo, and the Loochoo Islands, but finally agreed to accept two, the port of Simoda in Hondo and that of Hakedate in Yezo. An agreement being at length reached, three copies of the treaty were exchanged, and this was followed by an entertainment on the fleet to the Japanese officials, in which they did full justice to American fare, and seemed to be particularly fond of champagne. One of them became so merry and familiar under the influence of this beverage that he vigorously embraced the commodore, who bore the infliction with good-humored patience.

Diaya River


At the new treaty ports the restrictions which had been thrown around the Dutch at Nagasaki were removed, citizens of the United States being free to go where they pleased within a limit of several miles around the towns.

The success of the Americans in this negotiation stimulated the other maritime nations, and in the same year a British fleet visited Nagasaki and obtained commercial concessions. In 1858 the treaties were extended, the port of Yokohama replacing that of Simoda, and the treaty ports being opened to American, British, French, and Dutch traders. Subsequently the same privileges were granted to the other commercial nations, the country was made free to travellers, and the long-continued isolation of Japan was completely broken down. A brief experience of the advantages of commerce and foreign intercourse convinced the quick-witted islanders of the folly of their ancient isolation, and they threw open their country without restriction to all the good the world had to offer and to the fullest inflow of modern ideas.