In his July 31 Timeout article, “Most unlikely bedfellows” — on the beginning of U.S.-Japan relations — writer Michael Hoffman made a number of assertions that might have either confused or misled readers.
To begin with, although U.S. President Millard Fillmore’s letter was addressed to the “Emperor of Japan,” it specifically mentions his place of residence as “Yeddo” (Edo). So, for Hoffman to claim that “Fillmore wrote to the Emperor Komei” is obviously incorrect. Indeed, as he himself correctly states, he was “unknown to the Americans.” In that case, how could they even think to write a letter to him?
“Emperor,” both in the letter and in the official narrative, clearly is written with the shogun in mind, even though that particular word is never used. (It was not part of English vocabulary at the time.) Furthermore, Hoffman’s assertion that “power resided with the shogun in Edo, who, unknown to himself, was rapidly losing control of events” may sound catchy and authoritative, but it has no basis in fact.
The real (as opposed to nominal) power in Edo resided with the senior council (roju) and, in particular, with its head, Abe Masahiro. It was Abe and the council who made all the crucial decisions about how to deal with the arrival of the American squadron, without any active involvement by the shogun. Far from “losing control of events,” they were actively engaged in keeping them under control — and avoiding open conflict.
The claim that Cmdr. Matthew Perry, unlike U.S. Consul Townsend Harris, “had been authorized to use force if necessary” is also misleading.
Perry was expressly not authorized to use force to secure a treaty, except in self-defense and as a last resort. This, of course, did not prevent him from making a show of force or threatening to use it, in order to more quickly and surely to attain his ends.
Anyone interested in more information about this topic could begin with my “The Opening of Japan, 1853-1855,” which was reviewed on these pages by Sir Hugh Cortazzi on Aug. 20, 2006.
The opinions expressed in this letter to the editor are the writer’s own and do not necessarily reflect the policies of The Japan Times.
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