Face to face from worlds far apart


The miracle is no blood was shed. On the contrary, the Americans and the Japanese rather liked each other. That too is something of a miracle.

They met under strained circumstances, one party menacing, the other defenseless. And they had so little in common, these two civilizations from opposite ends of the Earth — the one young, open, expansive, confident; the other the opposite. One society’s civilization was the other’s barbarism; one’s good, the other’s evil. Official Japan wanted no part of what America had to offer. But America was not taking “no” for an answer.

The “Black Ships of evil mien” steamed into Edo Bay on Feb. 13, 1854, the very picture of a force not to be defied. When defiance is unthinkable prevarication must serve, and the cornered Japanese, steeped in Confucian formality, were masters at it. A less patient invader than Commodore Matthew Perry might have succumbed to bellicose frustration. A veteran naval officer and seasoned diplomat, Perry was 59 when he undertook the mission to open Japan to American trade. He would use force if necessary, but preferred not to. “With people of forms,” he wrote in an official dispatch, “it is necessary . . . to out-Herod Herod in assumed personal consequence and ostentation.

“From motives of policy,” he went on, “and to give greater importance to my own position, I have hitherto studiously kept myself aloof from intercourse with any of the subordinates of the court, making it known that I would communicate with none but the princes of the Empire. Up to this time, I have succeeded far beyond my expectations . . . “

The Treaty of Amity and Friendship took six weeks to negotiate (with all dialogue passing from English to Japanese, and vice versa, via Dutch). The first point to be settled, and in some ways the most contentious, was where negotiations would take place. The Japanese insisted on Uraga, a village at the mouth of Edo Bay (now in Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture), far enough from the capital to avoid causing consternation there.

But the Americans had not come to be relegated to the margins. Perry’s instructions were to “present himself at Edo.” Instructions aside, “Edo loomed large in the American consciousness,” writes Burritt Sabin in “A Historical Guide to Yokohama,” published this year. “American schoolchildren read in their geographies that Edo was the world’s most populous city . . . The allure of the closed city was such that when bluejackets espied it from their survey boat they gave ‘three cheers in honor of being the first Americans that ever saw the City of Yedo.’ “

A provocative advance by the black ships up the bay to Haneda convinced the Japanese that further stalling would be dangerous. They proposed a compromise site: Yokohama. A crude village utterly lacking in amenities, Yokohama had nothing going for it but location — close enough to Edo to satisfy the Americans, far enough from it to mollify the Japanese. The amenities were speedily built — with wood from Uraga.

The negotiations that followed prefigure 20th-century absurdist theater. Imagine grave Japanese officials doffing their dignity to ride a miniature American steam locomotive — and rugged American sailors doffing theirs to be tossed like empty sacks by hulking sumo wrestlers. Each side displayed what it considered most marvellous about itself. The Americans staged a shipboard minstrel show. Sabin wonders wryly what the Japanese audience would have made of lines like “Yah-yah-Sambo, how you be?” Not much, perhaps, and yet, notes historian George Sansom, “Even the chief delegate, Hayashi Daigaku no Kami, the Lord Rector of the University and the Chief Confucian Adviser to the Shogun, a very grave statesman, was seen to share in the fun . . . “

Hayashi’s dignity called for corresponding gravitas from Perry. On March 8, he staged his “Great Landing,” a ceremonial progress from his ship to the newly constructed Treaty House — part of his “out-Heroding Herod” act. An emergency arose. An American marine had died; where was he to be buried? In Nagasaki, said the Japanese. No, said Perry — the new relations America was pressing for might as well start now. The Christian funeral at Yokohama’s Zotokuin Temple, barely 20 km from the capital, broke new ground — Christianity was then outlawed in Japan.

Five days later, on March 13, the Americans presented their gifts, one of which was the miniature railway. “It was a spectacle not a little ludicrous,” records the official Narrative of the Expedition, “to behold a dignified mandarin whirling around the circular road at the rate of 20 miles an hour [32 kph], with his loose robes flying in the wind.”

The sumo demonstration on March 24 accompanied the presentation of Japanese gifts — silks, lacquers, porcelains; all very unimpressive, thought the Americans. The sumo was arresting enough — in a grotesque sort of way. “From the brutal performance of these wrestlers,” says the official narrative, “the Americans turned with pride to the exhibition . . . of the telegraph and the railroad. . . . In place of a show of brute animal force, there was a triumphant revelation, to a partially enlightened people, of the success of science and enterprise.”

The minstrel show on March 27 was the final revel. Hayashi’s secretary, Mantaro Matsuzaki, drunkenly embraced Perry and declaimed, “Nippon and America, all the same heart.”

“Perry,” writes Sabin, “asked by a senior [U.S.] official how he could bear that, replied, ‘If they will only sign the Treaty, he may kiss me.’ “

The treaty was signed on March 31. Japan, shut off from the world since 1641, was soon to open.