Commodore Perry’s Letter

In 1853, Commodore Perry first visited Japan with three warships and the Japanese said “Come back later”. So he came back later with seven warships and the Japanese dropped their self-isolation policy and opened two ports for American ships to refuel and restock. Trade was opened after negotiations with Consulate Harris a while later in 1860.

Sounds like a straight forward story of gunboat diplomacy on the face of it. But in many ways it was a story rich in twists and turns.

Perry’s people had no idea what Japanese government was like. They did not know the word “shogun” for example, and called him “tycoon”. So large foreign ships anchored off the sleepy fishing village of Uraga and the leader asked for the “tycoon”.

After much ado, a letter was delivered to the “tycoon” of what Perry believed was “the Kingdom of Japan”. Behind the ceremony was the most trying ordeal in bureaucratic red tape and government decision making that Americans would never have imagined. The “powdered curls” world of 19th century Congress looked primitively simple by comparison.

As it turned out, the “tycoon” was not the absolute leader of Japan. Every time the Americans asked for an answer, they were told that they were awaiting a response from the “Chotei” in Kyoto. I have no idea how long it took them to figure out that “Chotei” was the honorary term for the Imperial Government.

On every important matter of state, the shogun’s decision needed to be legitimized by the Emperor. Nominally, the shogun was only one of the Emperor’s many subjects, and the Emperor had the power to over rule the shogun. In practice, the most he could do was to chip away at the shogun’s proposals or demand concessions in other areas in a quid pro quo for his endorsement. With the arrival of Perry, the Imperial Government saw an unique opportunity to expand its interests.

In order to accommodate the Emperor’s demands, the council of elders, or cabinet, in the shogunite had to decide who would give up some of his interests. There were hundreds of landed “daimyo” in the government and some thousands of “hatamoto” all of whom had vested interests in the status quo.

Now it is well to remember that at this time the shogun was only a little boy who had no real power of his own, the Emperor was merely a figurehead who spent more time with poetry than politics and both the shogun’s government in Edo (Tokyo) and the Emperor’s government in Kyoto were ridden with factionalism. Every faction was tied to businesses and fortunes that had interests of its own. No two high officials agreed on anything about how to respond to the Americans. And the Americans had no idea who it was that they were talking to. This was definitely not the political sophistication of “Kingdoms” they were accustomed to dealing with.

Lord Mizuno, the highest adviser to the shogun prior to Perry’s visit, had some advance information about the turnout of the Opium War and saw the need to repel the “barbarians”. But he lost his job when he failed to squire land necessary to build fortresses to protect Osaka and Edo harbors. There were simply too many special interests to fight.

Lord Abe succeeded Mizuno and immediately recognized the need to modernize Japan’s defense forces. But he had so few allies in the shogun’s cabinet that he sought advice and foreign intelligence from Lord Shimazu (who monopolized interests in Okinawa), Lord Kuroda and Lord Nabeshima (who governed over Nagasaki, the only port open to foreign trade) all of whom were regional lords of Kyushu who previously had absolutely no right to interfere with matters of state. This was completely unprecedented. He also tried to ally with Lord Mito, a powerful “inner” lord who – although he was technically a regional ruler of what is now Chiba – had much influence in the shogunite and was a major proponent of greater naval buildup. But the alliance did not work out possibly because Lord Abe was seen as something of a “lame duck”.

After long sessions of discussions, the cabinet of the shogunite decided that they would break precedent and accept the letter from the American president, but hand over the reply in Nagasaki. Perry’s answer was that his letter must be accepted by a high officer of the Japanese government and that the answer will be accepted in Edo in the following year. Lord Abe took the proposal to Lord Mito, another unprecedented act, who supported it. The order to accept the letter trickled down the pecking order to the sleepy fishing village where two-bit bureaucrats were given the job of accepting the letter from the President of the United States.

There were many protocols to handling official letters in Japan at the time. Letters to men of high office not only needed to be written in a certain way, in well defined jargon on appropriate paper, but had to be delivered on specific types of trays. There were rules on who was allowed to touch the tray, which officers were to carry it, and who would keep their heads bowed while the tray was being transported in front of them. The Americans knew none of this and expected someone to take the letter by hand.

The two governors of Uraga, who governed in alternating months, both showed up to accept the letter in a hastily propped up tent. Their official titles were translated to English as “Toda, Prince of Idzu” and “Ido, Prince of Iwami” and the Americans were duly pleased that their letter was accepted by two “princes”.

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