Most unlikely bedfellows

Charting the course of Japan-U.S. relations — relations that now, as ever, can surprise, bewilder and baffle

by Michael Hoffman

Special To The Japan Times

“How wonderful! How marvelous! From here to the southeast is what the Westerners call the Pacific Ocean and the American states! They must be very close!” — Watanabe Kazan, artist and samurai, in a diary recording a sojourn in Enoshima, an island off Kamakura in present-day Kanagawa Prefecture, in 1821.

Close indeed. Closer than he or any Japanese then knew. Just around the corner, in fact.

“Intercourse shall be continued forever.” — Shogun Tokugawa Iesada (under duress), to U.S. Consul Townsend Harris, 1857.

Two mid-19th-century whalemen, an American and a Japanese, made their names immortal. Pity they never met.

They almost did. At least their paths came close to crossing.

On Jan. 3, 1841, Herman Melville boarded the whale-ship Acushnet at the port of Fairhaven, Massachusetts. He was 21, with not much going for him. His father had died bankrupt and the economy was still sunk under the market crash of 1837. The Acushnet was bound for Japan. Japan was the new horizon for American whalers, whales in the Atlantic having been hunted to near-extinction.

On Jan. 5, 1841, a 14-year-old Shikoku peasant boy named Manjiro found work on an 8-meter, square-sailed fishing boat, not equipped for the deep sea because the deep sea was strictly off limits — and had been since the 1630s, when sakoku (closed-country) became the law of the land under the Tokugawa Shogunate. To leave the country, or enter it from outside, was a capital crime. But typhoons blow regardless of laws, and a particularly vicious one swept Manjiro’s helpless little craft far out to sea. A desert island offered forbidding but life-saving sanctuary. Six hand-to-mouth months later, Manjiro and four companions were rescued by — coincidences are fascinatingly anarchic — another American whaler from Fairhaven, Massachusetts.

Melville never made it to Japan — he deserted the rigors of the whale ship for lushly perilous and amorous adventure among South Pacific cannibals — but Manjiro did make it to Fairhaven, taken there by his kindly rescuer, Capt. William Whitfield. Whitfield found himself drawn to the young castaway with the quick intelligence and insatiable curiosity. A childless widower, he adopted the boy as a son — a gesture ironically symbolic of the bilateral relationship to come. He christened him John.

Melville, in his 1851 masterpiece “Moby Dick,” remarked, “If that double-bolted land, Japan, is ever to become hospitable, it is the whale-ship alone to whom the credit will be due; for already she is on the threshold.”

In 1860, an American naval officer named John Brooke noted in his journal, “I am satisfied that (John Manjiro) has had more to do with the opening of Japan than any other man living.” Of the two, the latter is probably the more accurate assessment — but then Brooke was looking back, not forward. When he wrote, Japan had been “open” for six years.

“By our recent acquisitions in the Pacific, Asia has suddenly become our neighbor.” — U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Robert Walker, 1848.

“Friend,” they call each other now — the two democratic economic powerhouses on opposite sides of the Pacific. Tomodachi means “friend” in Japanese, and in giving that name to the vast relief operation its military launched following the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, the United States seemed to be saying, “We’re more than just allies.”

That’s part spin, part plain truth. There really is a special relationship between these two nations. There is one, too, between the U.S. and Britain — based on common language, culture, values. What is the Japan-U.S. relationship based on?

Opposites. Can any two nations be more diametrically opposite? That’s less true today, Japan in defeat having adopted many of the victor’s ways. Clashing contraries remain all the same, as the trade friction of the 1980s and the seemingly intractable tensions over American military bases show. But they clash less harshly. If the two nations bewilder, annoy and irritate each other now, imagine the confusion attending their first acquaintance.

Whatever one was, the other was not, and vice versa. America was new, Japan old; America expansive, Japan insular; America rich, Japan poor; America big, Japan small; America individualist, Japan collective; America multiethnic, Japan proudly monocultural. America’s highest ideal was freedom, Japan’s obedience; the U.S. gloried in the pursuit of happiness, Japan in self-sacrifice — and so on and so on. Japan was the “land of the gods,” America a “city on a hill.” They seemed destined to despise each other, and sometimes did, but more often didn’t. That’s the wonder of Japan-U.S. relations.

They began with a rape dressed up as seduction — and accepted as such, over time. The story is familiar. Four words and it’s told: Commodore Perry, Black Ships. That leaves blanks to fill in, of course, among them the inexhaustible energy of young America, scarcely comprehensible in the present old age of mankind. A new nation was bursting its seams; a huge continent was too small for it. By 1848, California was American, following a victorious war with Mexico. What next? The Pacific. To Americans of that day, the Far East was the Far West. The letter that Cmdr. Matthew Perry brought from U.S. President Millard Fillmore for the Emperor of Japan in July 1853 declared — not in so many words, but in effect: We’re on our way, cooperate or else; you’re either for us or against us.

“You know,” Fillmore wrote to the Emperor Komei — who, unknown to the Americans, sat impotent in Kyoto; power resided with the shogun in Edo (soon to become Tokyo), who, unknown to himself, was rapidly losing control of events — “that the United States of America now extend from sea to sea; that the great countries of Oregon & California are parts of the United States; and that from these countries, which are rich in gold & silver & precious stones, our steamers can reach the shores of your happy land in less than 20 days …”

Engaged mainly in trade with China, these steamers, the president continued, “must pass along the Coast of your Empire; storms & winds may cause them to be wrecked on your shores, and we ask & expect from your kindness & your greatness, kindness for our men …

“Your Empire has a great abundance of coal; this is an article which our Steamships, in going from California to China, must use … “

How many Japanese at the time could even imagine what steamships were? In 1851, the year “Moby Dick” was published, John Manjiro, having acquired an American education, having gone a-whaling, having made a modest fortune in the 1849 California gold rush, returned to Japan — on a whale-ship, as it happened, so Melville may have been right after all. He landed under cover of night on a beach in Okinawa, made his way to Kagoshima in the south of Kyushu, and was interrogated by the local ruler, Lord Shimazu, to whom the wonder of steam power came as an astonishing revelation. Yes, said Manjiro, the Americans had ocean-going steamships; also “land ships,” which ran on iron rails.

“Comrade Americanos — to us, then, at last, the Orient comes … ” — American poet Walt Whitman, 1860.

Perry and his men laid out Japan’s first “iron rails” on the beach at Yokohama. It was March, 1854, barely nine months after Perry had delivered his letter and promised — threatened rather — to return the following year. Now the Black Ships — or “Kurofune,” as the Japanese called the armed vessels under Perry’s command -were back.

An exchange of gifts and entertainments was preliminary to the signing of the Treaty of Peace and Amity wrested at last from a grudging, stalling but helpless Japan. Manjiro, newly dubbed a samurai, served as the shogun’s interpreter — despite reservations in some quarters. “I wonder,” mused one official, “if that American barbarian (Manjiro’s foster-father, Whitfield) educated Manjiro as part of some scheme.”

The miniature locomotive the Americans set running on those iron rails was a hit. “It was a spectacle not a little ludicrous,” noted the official “Narrative of the Expedition,” “to behold a dignified mandarin whirling around the circular road at the rate of 20 miles an hour (32kph), with his loose robes flying in the wind.”

The Japanese were all admiration, the Americans all contempt. A staged sumo contest, meant to impress, fell flat. “From the brutal performance of these wrestlers,” says the “Narrative,” “the Americans turned with pride to the exhibition … of the telegraph and the railroad. It was a happy contrast, which a higher civilization presented, to the disgusting display on the part of the Japanese officials. 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 two nations stood face to face and yet did not see each other. Is it surprising? To each the other represented barbarism.

A trivial but revealing example: The Japanese “are a clean people,” wrote U.S. Consul Townsend Harris, recording his first impressions upon arrival in 1856 to negotiate a trade treaty supplementary to the Peace and Amity pact. “Everyone bathes every day. … (People) of both sexes, old and young, enter the same bathroom and there perform their ablutions in a state of perfect nudity. I cannot account for so indelicate a proceeding on the part of a people so generally correct.”

Four years later, a Japanese delegation, 77 strong, Manjiro among them as chief interpreter, traveled to the U.S. to formally ratify the treaty Harris had at last succeeded in imposing. (The stalling tactics with which his Japanese interlocutors tortured him were beyond anything they had dared risk with Perry — who, unlike Harris, had been authorized to use force if necessary. One can hardly blame the Japanese; they were doing what little they could, including trying to soften Harris with a geisha mistress, to protect themselves against such treaty provisions as American-controlled tariffs and the surrender of jurisdiction over criminal proceedings involving foreigners.)

“Over the Western sea hither from Niphon come,/ Courteous, the swart-cheek’d two-sworded envoys,” sang Whitman, poetically celebrating the delegation’s arrival in New York. Who is “indelicate?” One Japanese delegate was shocked to observe, during a dance, that American women “were nude from shoulders to arms. … The way men and women, both young and old, mixed in the dance, was simply insufferable to watch.”

“For the next generation the Japanese we knew will be as extinct as Belemnites.” — Dr. William Sturgis Bigelow in a letter to Edward Sylvester Morse, circa 1883.

We move on now to a cast of characters whose most familiar representative is Lafcadio Hearn — the American (or, in Hearn’s case, temporarily U.S.-domiciled) Japanophiles of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Gone is the facile contempt that marked the initial encounters; in its stead, an intense appreciation, germinating in New England and spreading outward, of Japanese art, Japanese thought, the mysterious way the Japanese had of making so little express so much, the mysterious Japanese beauty. America in comparison — the nouveau-riche, hyperactive, protoindustrial America of the post-Civil War “Gilded Age” — seemed, to some sensitive souls at least, uncouth, empty, ugly.

This is a long way to have come in 30 years from the smug superiority of the days of the Black Ships. Which was the “higher civilization” after all?

The irony is that most Japanese were by this time thinking like the “Narrative of the Expedition.” Japanese contempt for Japanese culture had become poisonous. Japanese art was “backward,” “feudal,” fussy, trifling, an obstacle to progress. American collectors were buying Japanese pictures, statues and porcelains for a song; the Japanese couldn’t unload their treasures fast enough.

“Belemnites” are a species of extinct mollusks. Edward Sylvester Morse was a biologist, an early Darwinist. Dr. William Sturgis Bigelow, one of his many disciples in Japanophilia, was a surgeon. “I first visited Japan solely for the purpose of studying various species of Brachiopods in the Japan Seas,” Morse wrote. It was in 1877, a year after the Philadelphia World’s Fair. “The Japanese exhibit at the Centennial exposition in Philadelphia,” he recalled, “came to us as a revelation.”

Hearn had a similar awakening at another World’s Fair — New Orleans, 1884. The electric lights on dazzling display there gave him nightmares. “Never,” he wrote, “did the might of machinery seem to me so awful as when I first watched that enormous incandescence.” The Japanese exhibit soothed him. He and his soon-to-be-adopted country shared an affinity for shadows — waxing in his case, waning in Japan’s, though he refused to acknowledge it. Japan, he wrote years later, wilfully blind to brute fact, “remains just as Oriental today as she was a thousand years ago.”

And so 1877 found Morse in Japan. Tokyo Imperial University, ancestor of today’s University of Tokyo, was then all of three weeks old. It had hired him to lecture on Darwinism. The character of this remarkable man, well described by the American scholar Christopher Benfy in “The Great Wave” (2003), is an inspiration to all cross-cultural wanderers. His refusal — more an innate inability — to view Japan through the filter of presumed Western and Christian superiority made him the father of American Japanophilia. His profession did not define him. Everything in the world interested him. He was the first foreigner to study Noh drama, the first foreigner to study tea ceremony.

“The Japanese,” Morse observed, “enjoy the natural results of nature’s caprices.” They seemed to him instinctive Darwinists. He admired Japanese pottery and became an avid collector. He wrote a book titled “Japanese Homes and their Surroundings” (1885) that celebrated — perhaps for the first time outside Japan — sparsity.

“Our (American) rooms,” he wrote, “seem to (the Japanese) like a curiosity shop … Such a maze of vases, pictures, plaques, bronzes, with shelves, brackets, cabinets and tables loaded down with bric-a-brac, is quite enough to drive a Japanese frantic.”

The list of American artists, architects, critics and collectors whose appreciation of Japan began with or was enriched by Morse is long and distinguished. It includes the art critic and scholar Ernest Fenollosa, artist John LaFarge, art collector Isabella Gardner, architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Thanks to them, says Benfy, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston houses “the greatest and most comprehensive repository of Japanese art outside Japan.” Furthermore, “All across New England … one finds vestiges of Japanese practices in rooflines and sheds, balconies and alcoves, and in a willingness to leave empty space for the imagination to dwell in.”

Empty space is an acquired taste. Americans weren’t bred on it, and some, probably most, saw nothing in it. One, writing in an expatriate Yokohama newspaper in 1881, observed, “The Japanese are a happy race, and, being content with little, are unlikely to achieve much.”

“Th’ trouble is whin the gallant Commodore (Perry) kicked opn th’ door, we didn’t go in. They came out.” — Finley Peter Dunne, Irish-American humorist, 1907.

Come out they did. They burst their bonds. Bullied into “civilization,” the Japanese soared to the challenge and became bullies in turn, defeating China in 1895, Russia 10 years later. “A subjick race is on’y funny whin it’s raaly subjeck,” observed Peter Dunne’s fictional alter ego, Chicago saloon-keeper Mr. Dooley. “About three years ago (1904) I stopped laughin’ at Japanese jokes.”

Cheering Japan on — at first — was U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt. “Banzai!” he wrote to his Japanophile friend Bigelow in 1905 as Japan bore down on the Russians. Bigelow, playing on Roosevelt’s admiration for virility in all its manifestations, had introduced the warrior president (fresh from victory over Spain in 1898) to Japanese warrior culture, his intention being to influence American foreign policy in Japan’s favor. He succeeded — thus unwittingly contributing to the very “extinction” he had foreseen with dread 20 years earlier.

When Japan in 1904 struck a Russian-leased port in Korea without so much as a declaration of war, the U.S. was quietly approving — on the grounds, said the American minister in Japan, that “these people (Koreans) cannot govern themselves.”

Victory in war conferred worthiness to govern others. This was a species of Darwinism — political survival of the fittest — that Morse had not taught at Tokyo Imperial University. Victorious Japan had proved, in the words of one Japanese official, that “civilization is not a monopoly of the white man.”

In 1906, came a crisis. Japanese emigrants had been settling in California since the 1880s, and by 1900 numbered about 24,000. There was resentment. Japanese “labor for less than a white man can live on,” said the San Francisco Chronicle, prime stoker of fears of the “Yellow Peril.” In April 1906 an earthquake leveled San Francisco; six months later the local Board of Education, on the pretext of damage to schools, “ordered that all Chinese, Japanese and Korean children go (sometimes at a great distance) to a segregated Oriental Public School,” writes American historian Walter Lafeber in “The Clash: U.S.-Japanese Relations throughout History” (1997). “The timing was not thoughtful: Japan’s Red Cross had just sent a quarter-million dollars” to aid quake victims. “The Japanese government strongly protested the segregation of its citizens. A leading Tokyo newspaper cried: ‘Stand up, Japanese nation! Our countrymen have been humiliated!’ “

Roosevelt raged at the “idiots” in California — but he took note of Japanese ire and prepared for war. Cooler thinking prevailed, resulting in a “Gentlemen’s Agreement” (as it was termed) which saw the segregation order withdrawn in exchange for a Japanese commitment to voluntarily restrict emigration.

But racism is a powerful force, or was until very recently. Presidential candidate Woodrow Wilson, campaigning in California in 1912, said, “Oriental coolieism will give us another race problem to solve, and surely we have had our lesson.” In 1913 the state legislature passed a bill prohibiting land purchases by Japanese. (The fact that foreigners were prohibited from owning land in Japan did not, apparently, mitigate Japanese anger.) In 1924, the U.S. Immigration Act banned Japanese immigration nationwide, until it was at last withdrawn in 1952.

It was a blow. Yusuke Tsurumi, critic, writer and future politician, made no secret of that in lectures across the U.S. immediately after the act’s passage. “To my Oriental mind,” he said, “the procedure of Congress is inexplicable. … By a curious coincidence, the Immigration Act broke in upon the meditations of the Japanese people at a moment when the nation was bleeding from the wounds inflicted by the greatest calamity ever visited upon mankind by earthquake and fire” — the Great Kanto Earthquake of September 1923.

“In the midst of our afflictions, the nation that had literally shaken open our gate, introduced us to the family of nations, sent Christian missionaries to teach us the ways of brotherhood and peace, and given us friendly counsel and advice at every turn, … slammed its own gate shut in our face.”

“In the first six to 12 months of a war with the United States and Britain, I will run wild and win victory after victory. But if the war continues after that, I have no expectation of success.” — Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, September 1940, warning Prime Minister Fumimaro Konoe that a war with the West was unwinnable.

His warning overruled, Yamamoto became the reluctant mastermind of the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

“Yesterday, Dec. 7, 1941 — a date which will live in infamy — the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by … the Empire of Japan.” — U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt to Congress, reacting to Pearl Harbor.

“This war will give us much trouble in the future. The fact that we have had a small success at Pearl Harbor is nothing.” — Adm. Yamamoto.

“If only we might fall like cherry blossoms in the spring — so pure and radiant!” — Haiku by a kamikaze pilot who died in combat in February 1945, aged 22.

“This year when they turn on the lights of that Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center, we Americans are going to have to come to grips with the reality that this great national celebration is actually occurring on Japanese property.” — Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman, 1989.

There is nothing in history quite like Japan-U.S. relations. Sometimes it seems less a relationship between two nations than one between two people, characterized by convoluted human psychology rather than cold realpolitik. They have felt for each other, at different times and sometimes simultaneously, admiration and contempt, affection and repugnance, fascination and bewilderment, trust and distrust. Each has learned from the other, taught the other, been appalled by the other, and striven to imitate the other.

When force was involved, it was generally America that applied it and Japan that either yielded or was crushed. In terms of influence, there seems little doubt that Japan is more Americanized than America is Japanized (America’s ubiquitous sushi bars notwithstanding). And yet, this month’s Anime Expo in Los Angeles reminds us of that earlier wave of American appreciation of Japanese art, and suggests something enduring.

Even in the field of industrial capitalism — which Japan, naturally given to the sparsity and restraint so admired by Morse and Hearn — had to learn from scratch from American masters operating in their native element of limitless production and insatiable consumption, “Japan as Number One” was not only the title of a 1979 best-seller by Harvard sociologist Ezra Vogel, but a slogan that expressed a development that looked increasingly likely as the 1980s advanced. Then Japan slipped and the likelihood receded, but it had been a reality. “Please, Japan. Return the favor. Occupy us,” editorialized the New York Times in March, 1981.

The U.S. Occupation of Japan from 1945-52 was, in the words of British historian Richard Storry, “the most harmonious occupation of one great county by another that has ever been known.” It and the subsequent course of the relationship, given the bottomless hatred and wholesale destruction that had preceded it, “almost seems a small miracle,” wrote American historian John Dower. Why “almost,” and why “small”? This is as miraculous as international relations get. From Pearl Harbor and Hiroshima-Nagasaki to the quasi-adoption that followed the war — Japan playing Manjiro to America’s Capt. Whitfield — is an extraordinary leap, and the two nations that made it made history in so doing.

The sailing hasn’t been smooth. Communist China “red or green” was “a natural market,” defiantly declared Japan’s first postwar prime minister, Shigeru Yoshida, in 1949 — “and it has become necessary for Japan to think about markets.”

That stunned the Americans. Was Japan forgetting itself? Was evil — in communist guise — to be accommodated rather than uprooted?

The first 30 years of bilateral postwar diplomacy can be summed up in terms of American efforts to keep Japan on its side of the Cold War. The carrot was trade concessions. The sticks included U.S. threats, as when Japan refused to send troops to the Vietnam War, to pull out of Asia altogether and leave Japan to face an expansionist China alone.

Yet while American markets opened to Japanese goods, Japanese markets remained stubbornly closed — Japanese negotiators tying their U.S. interlocutors up in knots with the same faultlessly polite immovability that had so frustrated Perry and Harris 100 years earlier — only now, the Japanese had cards to play and the Americans huffed and puffed in vain.

The concessions won set the stage for the trade friction of the second 30 years of bilateral postwar diplomacy. Japan was getting a free ride, Americans fumed as their economy sputtered and Japan’s soared. U.S. President Richard Nixon in 1971 gave Japan all of three minutes’ advance notice before announcing U.S. recognition of China — his way, he said, to “stick it to Japan” for Japan’s failure to voluntarily reduce textile exports flooding American markets. Japanese cars ruled American roads — “When you bought your Japanese car, 10 Americans lost their jobs,” read a 1980s American bumper sticker. Japanese capital seemed to be buying up America — the Rockefeller Center was the last straw for Sen. Joseph Lieberman. What was this, Pearl Harbor all over again? “The Japanese are still fighting the war, only now instead of a shooting war it is an economic war,” said Maurice Stans, Nixon’s Commerce Secretary, in 1971.

Where would it have ended, had Japan’s economy in the 1990s not sickened and foundered? There is no telling. Perhaps friendship of this kind depends on one party being weak and dependent and knowing its place — in which case the other party will be all benevolence.

“Just as the United States was once a colony of Great Britain but is now the stronger of the two, if Japan becomes a colony of the United States it will eventually become the stronger.” — Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida, 1951.

Michael Hoffman’s latest book is “Little Pieces: This Side of Japan” (VBW Publishing, 2010). His website is