National / History

Open waters: Opening of ports 150 years ago remains a watershed moment in the nation's history

by Eric Johnston

Staff Writer

The year 2018 marks the 150th anniversary of the Meiji Restoration, which ended about 250 years of self-imposed isolation and marked the beginning of Japan’s efforts to become a major international power.

That year, 1868, also saw the opening of the ports of Kobe and Osaka, while Niigata prepared to officially open to foreign trade on Jan. 1, 1869. Yokohama had been a center of foreign trade since opening in 1859 and would prosper after the Meiji Restoration. Nagasaki, the country’s only window to the West during its period of isolation, remained an important international port but would start to decline as foreign merchants took up residence in Kobe and did business closer to Kanto and Kansai.

Various official events to mark the century and a half since the opening of their ports are planned for Kobe, Osaka and Niigata next year, including local seminars and museum exhibitions. The Prime Minister’s Office has opened a website for the 150th anniversary of the Meiji Restoration (www.kantei.go.jp/jp/singi/meiji150/portal/), which lists commemorative events taking place across Japan throughout 2018.

Some of these celebrations will no doubt consist of seminars that put a positive spin how Western nations in particular influenced, and were influenced by, interactions with Japan via the presence of non-Japanese in a few select ports. It will be more interesting to see whether speakers also recall the problems and hostilities between Japan and the outside world during the years preceding 1868 that helped spark the Meiji Restoration.

Treaty ports, forbidden zones

On March 31, 1854, the United States and Japan signed the Treaty of Kanagawa after U.S. Commodore Matthew Perry and his “black ships” arrived in Japan, determined to force it open. The treaty granted Americans the right to use Shimoda and Hakodate (where two crew members from Perry’s fleet had died and been buried) as ports for U.S. ships seeking provisions and assistance. An article in the treaty also called for a U.S. consul agent to be located in Shimoda “provided that either of the two governments deem such arrangement necessary,” a choice of words that would prove to be a source of contention with the Japanese government, which did not want a U.S. consul on its soil.

Townsend Harris, the first U.S. envoy to Japan, arrived after Perry to negotiate a separate commercial treaty. It was accomplished after numerous delays and setbacks and in a country that was rapidly becoming divided between those who did not want Japan to deal with the barbarians, or want them living in Japan, and those who did want foreign trade or at least felt Japan had no choice but to accept some foreigners.

The 1858 Harris Treaty signed between Japan and the U.S. not only confirmed that the status quo at Shimoda and Hakodate would continue but also that Kanagawa, Nagasaki, Niigata, Edo (Tokyo), Osaka and Hyogo would open to U.S. trade in the coming years. Once Kanagawa was opened, the treaty added, isolated Shimoda would be closed. Although no one could foresee it at the time, the treaty became the spark that would lead to the events of 1868.

The ports open to trade would be granted extraterritoriality, which meant non-Japanese residents were not subject to Japanese law. Americans committing offenses against Japanese would be tried in American consular courts and, if found guilty, would be punished according to U.S. law. The treaty’s provisions gave Americans residing in Japan a great advantage and other countries, including Great Britain, France, the Netherlands and other European nations, soon signed similar treaties with the shogun’s government, which was weakening.

Townsend Harris, the first U.S. envoy to Japan (circa 1856).
Townsend Harris, the first U.S. envoy to Japan (circa 1856). | U.S. LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

Yet while a few ports with foreign settlements were open to the world, the country as a whole remained legally closed. Article VII of the Harris Treaty generally restricted foreign residents to traveling within a 10-ri (approximately 40-kilometer) radius of the settlements. Beyond that limit — except in Nagasaki where there was more freedom due to its long history of trade with the Dutch, and Niigata — travel was forbidden. In the case of Hyogo (later Kobe) and Osaka, there was an added restriction. Non-Japanese could not approach within 10 ri of the ancient capital of Kyoto, where the Emperor resided. They also couldn’t approach Nara, giving both cities an air of forbidden, mysterious glamor — if contemporary travel accounts by a few non-Japanese who managed to gain official permission to travel to Kyoto after 1868 are to be believed.

“It is not perhaps recognized how restricted were the movements of foreigners in those days. Under extraterritoriality, foreigners were confined to Kobe and 25 miles (40 kilometers) round, but this area was limited still further by a restriction that foreigners must not approach within 25 miles of Kyoto. This put Nara [which lies less than 40 kilometers from the southern border of Kyoto] out of bounds even for Osaka residents, and when on the rare occasions a permit was issued to visit Nara, accounts of the journey appeared in the papers as if a distant country had been explored,” said a history of Kobe published by The Japan Chronicle in 1918.

Of whalers and diplomats

“We, that is, our foreign community, most of them unscrupulous specimens of all the nations they claimed the protection of, wished and expected to find money exchanged as at Paris, custom-houses as well-organized as at London, ships as soon and as richly freighted as at New York or Liverpool. Patience was no word in the vocabulary of the newcomers. Insults, threats, words of doubtful celebrity, met the quiet and wonder-struck Japanese as often as they endeavoured to pacify their indignant guests.”

So wrote British diplomat C. Pemberton Hodgson in his “A Residence at Nagasaki and Hakodate in 1859-1860: With an Account of Japan Generally.” Each port would eventually develop its own personality, however, shaped by its climate, geography and relationship with local officialdom, as well as the kind of non-Japanese that resided there.

a woodblock print of Commodore Matthew Perry in uniform (circa 1850-1900).
a woodblock print of Commodore Matthew Perry in uniform (circa 1850-1900). | U.S. LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

The Kanagawa Treaty had designated Hakodate as a sanctuary for sailors shipwrecked along the coast of Japan. The Harris Treaty agreed that the U.S. Navy could build and store its supplies in warehouses at Kanagawa, Hakodate and Nagasaki. Thus, Hakodate became a major center for U.S. whaling ships and, from about mid-1859, general trade with the U.S., Britain, France and Russia. The last country, however, appeared less interested in trade than in guarding its Pacific coast and keeping an eye on the other Western powers, who kept an eye on Russian moves on both Hokkaido and in the Far East.

Kanagawa was also designated by the treaties as a port for a foreign concession. But, as Harold S. Williams wrote in “Tales of The Foreign Settlements in Japan,” Yokohama came into being despite the international treaties.

“Whilst the foreign ministers were drawing up plans for the future foreign settlement in Kanagawa, the Japanese authorities had decided that it would be better that the foreigners should be relegated to the little fishing village of Yokohama (which was) then far removed from the Tokaido — the great artery of Japan — and was of no importance and without resources,” Williams wrote.

Yokohama would eventually become one of the largest and most prosperous foreign treaty ports due to its location near Tokyo and excellent harbor, which drew foreign merchant ships and navies. A foreign settlement would also be established at Tsukiji, but it would never really prosper.

Pre-1868, Yokohama was marked by tensions and assassinations of foreign residents by anti-foreign elements, which led to some delegations bringing in their own militaries for protection. After 1868, there was great concern in Yokohama that many merchants might relocate to Kobe or Osaka, which opened that year, to seek more favorable opportunities. But Yokohama’s advantages were numerous to foreign firms, mostly because it had what modern marketing types call a well-developed social infrastructure.

Motomachi-dori in Yokohama (circa 1911).
Motomachi-dori in Yokohama (circa 1911). | THE NEW YORK PUBLIC LIBRARY

Unlike some other ports, Yokohama had any number of social and sporting clubs, churches and service businesses that catered to foreign residents. In addition to being a commercial center, Yokohama was also a major communications and foreign media hub. Several English-language newspapers and at least one French-language publication served the community throughout the latter half of the 19th century.

However, the Yokohama Foreign Settlement and Tokyo were also the scenes of bloodshed. Just a month after the port opened in 1859, Russian sailors were attacked and killed. Harris’ secretary was murdered in January 1861, and there was an attack on the British legation there six months later, Some of the countries represented in the foreign concession began bringing in their own troops.

The situation culminated a year later. In September 1862, C.L. Richardson, a British merchant, and his companions were attacked near Yokohama by members of the Satsuma clan after the British did not dismount their horses as a high-ranking Satsuma official passed by. Richardson was cut down by the samurai. The incident, and the Satsuma clan’s refusal to apologize or pay an indemnity, led to the bombardment of Kagoshima by the British in August 1863, after which the Satsuma clan agreed to pay.

The latecomers

The last treaty ports to open were Kobe, Osaka and Niigata. According to the terms of the Harris Treaty, Hyogo (later Kobe) and Osaka were supposed to have opened in 1863, while Niigata or another port selected by the U.S. and Japan was supposed to have opened by 1860. However, political turmoil delayed the opening of all three ports until 1868 and 1869.

Hopes for Kobe, in particular, were high. Much had been learned from the experiences, good and bad, of setting up the earlier Yokohama settlement. With another foreign concession in nearby Osaka, expectations were that the Kobe and Osaka ports would overtake Yokohama.

That did not happen, mostly because of maritime and political conditions in Osaka. In the former case, the approach to Osaka harbor was full of sandbanks that were quite hazardous for ships to cross. Newspapers and diaries from Kobe residents at the time often spoke of the difficulty of crossing Osaka Harbor to reach the foreign settlement in the city’s Kawaguchi district. With no roads for wheeled vehicles or railroads in place, getting from Kobe to Osaka in 1868, which takes a mere 20-30 minutes by train today, was a perilous journey by ship, while riding between the two cities by horse also ran the risk of travelers being robbed or murdered by anti-foreign samurai, as the Richardson affair had shown.

Osaka was also a victim of bad political timing. The official opening occurred just a few weeks before forces loyal to the shogun clashed with those loyal to the Kyoto-based Emperor near Kyoto. A battle ensued, ending with imperialist forces taking control of Osaka Castle, center of the shogun’s control. The foreign community of Osaka fled to Kobe, where they could be better protected by foreign naval vessels in the harbor. Few returned to Osaka after the Meiji Restoration, and the Kawaguchi foreign settlement would, by the dawn of the 20th century, become more well-known as a center for foreign missionary activity than as an international merchant hub.

Trade in Kobe revolved around cotton and Japanese tea after attempts to compete with Yokohama for the silk trade failed. Prosperity waxed and waned. In the beginning there was optimism, as characterized by an anonymous poem sent by a Kobe-based foreign merchant to the Hyogo News in 1869: “Oh, Kobe! Thou land with a glorious clime!/ With thy rippling brooks and gay sunshine/ With thy mountains and foliage, grand to the view/ What beauties has nature not given to you.”

But a few years later, during a period of economic depression, another anonymous bard wrote: “Beautiful Kobe! So dismal at night/ With very few lamps to give wayfarers light/ Where most of the gas that is used in the town/ Is seen in the mansions of Goldsmith and Browne/ Where clerks dress themselves in a very loud style/ With chains, rings, and lockets, provoking a smile.”

Hyogo Port in Kobe (circa 1901-07).
Hyogo Port in Kobe (circa 1901-07). | THE NEW YORK PUBLIC LIBRARY

Kobe would grow to rival Yokohama as a successful center for international trade. However, Peter Ennals, professor emeritus of geography and environment at Mount Allison University, wrote in his 2014 book, “Opening a Window to the West: The Foreign Concession at Kobe, Japan, 1868-1899,” that the foreign merchants of Kobe were often caretaker managers.

“Rather, the picture that we have is of a community of sleepwalkers, who, after establishing the apparatus of trade passed its operations to their juniors and Chinese employees,” Ennals wrote. “Preferring to indulge themselves in an artificial and (for many) agreeable lifestyle, they allowed events to overtake them as the Japanese mastered the levers of trade and modern manufacturing.”

Finally, there was Niigata. Offered by the Japanese government because of it once brought rice to Osaka by ship, the port’s isolated location meant it never really developed. The British acting consul general reported that, during its opening year of 1869, no foreign ships came to its port and only 17 non-Japanese, excluding some Chinese, were residing there. Until extraterritoriality was lifted in 1899, it appears trade was negligible.

“Many of the residents of the Nagasaki concession cleared out and headed to Kobe and Yokohama in the period after 1867, Ennals wrote in an email to The Japan Times. “Yokohama owed its success to its proximity to Yedo (Tokyo) the emerging metropolis and seat of the new Meiji government. The interchange between Kobe and Yokohama was fluid economically and socially. My impression is that Niigata and Hakodate were sleepy outposts that never got off the ground economically.”

Extraterritoriality ends

When the Meiji Emperor was restored to his throne in early 1868, fighting broke out, as we’ve seen, in the Kansai region as well as near Hakodate.

When the last of the pro-shogun forces were defeated, the new Meiji government turned its attention toward catching up with the West technologically, as well as ending what became known as the Unequal Treaties that granted the Western powers extraterritoriality in their foreign concessions. After decades of negotiation and pressure, the treaties came to an end in 1899. Extraterritoriality was history, and non-Japanese were free to travel to Kyoto and Nara without official permission.

As the 20th century dawned, Japan was rapidly becoming a major regional power, determined to never again be at a disadvantage with the outside world, yet also preparing with colonial designs on China and the Korean Peninsula that would lead to the war, defeat and then rebirth.

As the country prepares to look back on the events of 1868, and cities such as Kobe, Osaka and Niigata hail the opening of their ports, it’s clear that the experiences of the foreign concessions shaped — and were shaped by — all that took place in Japan that fateful year.