The samurai who were let out of the box


NEW YORK — The Museum of the City of New York has an exhibition titled “Samurai in New York: The First Japanese Delegation, 1860.” The “delegation” was the first embassy dispatched by Japan in more than a millennium. The previous one, in 838, went to the Tang Dynasty court to pay tribute to the Chinese emperor. The new one went to Washington to ratify a commercial treaty.

The City Museum has come up with the show, I gather, as much because this is the 150th anniversary of the treaty ratification as because “New-York, the Jeddo of America” — as The New York Times put it in an article on June 18, 1860 — gave the 77-man party the most extravagant welcome. (“New York” was spelled with a hyphen between the two words at the time; “Jeddo” is what is today given as “Edo,” though the Times also spelled it “Yedo.”)

Yes, extravagant the welcome was. “The procession was one of the finest displays of the kind ever witnessed in this City,” the Times reported. More than 40 carriages containing city dignitaries, the visitors and others proceeded from the Battery up Broadway, and more than 7,000 troops sallied forth for one parade after another: cavalry, Hussars, artillery.

One result was Walt Whitman’s poem, “A Broadway Pageant,” which begins:

Over the Western sea hither from Niphon come, Courteous, the swart-cheek’d two-sworded envoys, Leaning back in their open barouches, bare-headed, impassive, Ride to-day through Manhattan.

But for a fuller appreciation of the New York celebration of the embassy you must turn to the New York Times. As I found because of “Samurai in New York,” the paper carried a series of at times lengthy accounts — the Times hasn’t changed a bit in that regard — covering the embassy from its arrival in San Francisco on March 30 to its return to Kanagawa in November. And one thing that makes the reports a pleasurable read is their freedom from preconceptions, jaundiced, stereotypical or otherwise.

The Times correspondent — no byline here, alas — struck the right note when the Japanese arrived at Hampton Roads. “After seeing these people, and observing them closely, I have arrived at a conclusion different from your regular Panama correspondent, and his criticisms upon them are to be regretted,” he wrote. “Their appearance is pleasing, though as strange to us as ours must be to them.”

Not that all was free of trouble. The reporter knew perfectly well that Japan was in a precarious state. It was riven by two factions: those who advocated repelling any foreign intrusion and restoring the emperor system, and those who felt compromise with foreign powers was a must to preserve the shogunate. The embassy itself represented the two camps.

Nor that the outcome of the mission was satisfactory to the Americans who provided three warships to transport the embassy — the Powhatan, the Roanoke, and the Niagara — and defrayed much of the costs, not to mention all the hoopla they made. In what appears to be one of the last dispatches on the embassy, the Times correspondent expressed disappointment.

“The illiberal course that has been pursued by the Japanese from the very first, in their commercial relations with foreign countries,” he wrote from Kanagawa, “has undergone no change whatever since their Embassy left here [in February], with the treaty carefully boxed to carry to Washington for ratification.”

When it comes to the political aspect of the enterprise, of course, the treaty, worked out by the first U.S. consul in Japan, Townsend Harris, in 1858, was unequal. So was the Kanagawa Treaty Commodore Matthew Perry had extracted from the Tokugawa government four years earlier. It would take four decades for Japan to rectify such unequal treaties, although by then Japan was busy imposing unequal treaties on its neighbors.

No, “Samurai in New York” has nothing to do with the imperial power relations of the day. It’s just that I happened to be writing about the origins of the U.S.-Japanese War — the Pacific War — when the show opened, and the most arresting judgment I had come across was the one made by Lt. Gen. Kanji Ishihara, “the mastermind of the Manchurian Incident,” when questioned by the victors after Japan’s defeat: “The very cause of the U.S.-Japanese fracas is Commodore Perry who brought four warships to Uraga in the 4th year of Kaei [1853].”

Prospects for war between the two nations began to be contemplated in earnest decades earlier. In 1909, a few years after U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt arbitrated the Russo-Japanese War and made Japan the victor, two books came out predicting such a war: “Banzai!” by Parabellum and “The Valor of Ignorance” by Homer Lea.

Actually, “Banzai!” was a German book published the previous year, Parabellum being the pen name of Ferdinand Heinrich Grautoff. In the imagined war, Grautoff first made Japan beat the United States, before allowing the U.S. to prevail. His was a warning to “representatives of the white race against the Yellow Peril,” the Times commentator noted. The name Parabellum comes from Si vis pacem, para bellum, “If you wish for Peace, prepare for War.”

“The Valor of Ignorance” also reflected the fast spreading fear of “the Yellow Peril.” Japan had not just defeated Russia; Japanese immigrants were increasing on the West Coast. The inimitable Lea, who at age 23 appointed himself a lieutenant- general under a Chinese leader, detailed these things in the appendices to his book. Unlike the German author, Lea projected Japan would trounce his country, the U.S.

In fact, one of the two generals who wrote two separate introductions to “The Valor of Ignorance” would have agreed with Lt. Gen. Ishihara’s judgment 40 years later: It was the U.S. going to Japan “with an olive branch in one hand and in the other a naked sword,” wrote U.S. Army Maj. Gen. J.P. Storey, that “removed the lid of Pandora’s box with the enthusiastic approval of the American people.”

Come to think of it, in “A Broadway Pageant,” Whitman was foreseeing America as the proselytizer of democracy throughout the world, was he not, when he called his country “Libertad” and said, “I chant the new empire grander than any before” and “I chant a greater supremacy”?

Hiroaki Sato is a translator and essayist who lives in New York.