Breaking Open Japan: Commodore Perry, Lord Abe, and American Imperialism in 1853
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On July 14, 1853, the four warships of America's East Asia Squadron made for Kurihama, 30 miles south of the Japanese capital, then called Edo. It had come to pry open Japan after her two and a half centuries of isolation and nearly a decade of intense planning by Matthew Perry, the squadron commander. The spoils of the recent Mexican Spanish–American War had whetted a powerful American appetite for using her soaring wealth and power for commercial and political advantage.
Perry's cloaking of imperial impulse in humanitarian purpose was fully matched by Japanese self–deception. High among the country's articles of faith was certainty of its protection by heavenly power. A distinguished Japanese scholar argued in 1811 that "Japanese differ completely from and are superior to the peoples of...all other countries of the world."
So began one of history's greatest political and cultural clashes.
In Breaking Open Japan, George Feifer makes this drama new and relevant for today. At its heart were two formidable men: Perry and Lord Masahiro Abe, the political mastermind and real authority behind the Emperor and the Shogun. Feifer gives us a fascinating account of "sealed off" Japan and shows that Perry's aggressive handling of his mission had far reaching consequences for Japan – and the United States – well into the twentieth if not twenty–first century.
dropping of two atomic bombs. Samuel Wells Williams saw the 1858 commercial treaty as completion of Perry’s work and confirmation of the mission’s success: a “triumph” of intercourse with a Japan “reopened by Christian nations without injury to a single individual in the empire, without browbeating or threatening its government, and . . . with the general consent of the people.”52 The missionary was gratified to learn that “the Japanese officials remember [the Commodore] with respect.” But the
would come of those proposals, they revealed a new willingness, even desire, to amend the seclusion. Richard Chang, From Prejudice to Tolerance, p. 74. 4. George Sansom, The Western World and Japan, p. 284. 5. Harold Bolitho, “Abe Masahiro and the New Japan,” p. 181. 6. See p. 59. 7. Cited in William Beasley (ed. and trans.), Select Documents on Japanese Foreign Policy, pp. 112–13. 8. Toson Shimazaki, Before the Dawn, p. 110. 9. Peter Duus, The Japanese Discovery of America, p. 105. 10.
prepared that morning of July 14, he’d performed many of his actions during the preceding week in Japanese waters to proclaim that his guide would be American rules, not Japanese. That was why he told Japanese officials he knew their laws perfectly well because he’d spent a year studying them, but that they didn’t apply to him. It was also why he took pride in “purposely” violating their prohibitions—against surveying Uraga Bay, among other activities. His intention was to “alarm the authorities
lull us into a false sense of security.7 Many of the relatively few Japanese entitled to comment about national affairs shared that view. Since Westerners often used violence to extend their conquests, their advance men in the garb of traders and priests must be kept out, if necessary by force. But what happened to those who purposely violated the proclamation that no Christian must come to Japan “so long as the sun shall warm the earth?” The fates of that handful of brave men told quite a
pikes, muskets, pistols, and cutlasses, the force was commanded by a captain who’d served under Perry in the Mexican War. As the captain’s boat approached a temporary jetty of bagged sand and straw, the Commodore, still on the Susquehanna, cocked his hat, “dazzling with gold braid,” on his manly head before descending into his personal barge, riding alongside. His seclusion had earned much native curiosity as well as respect. Japanese eyes laid on him for the first time strained to read what they