I sometimes play the game of going back in history by a set number of years. I did that in 1995, for example, when there was some excitement about the 50th anniversary of the U.S. defeat of Japan in Word War II.

By going back half a century from 1945, you reach 1895, when Japan defeated China in a war over Korea.

Another 50 years back, you get to 1845, when Japan’s two-century old isolationist policy — partial because it accepted trade with Holland, China, Korea, and Ryukyu (Okinawa) — was becoming untenable.

In March of that year, the U.S. whaler Manhattan arrived in Uraga to return 11 Japanese castaways from the Pacific Ocean. In April a British (war)ship came to Naha, Ryukyu, and demanded trade relations. In July perhaps the same British ship came to Nagasaki. In August, Tokugawa Japan’s obstinacy became clear.

The government rejected the Dutch King William II’s counsel, delivered a year earlier via special envoy, that, unless Japan more widely and actively engaged with other nations, it might meet China’s fate. William II detailed in his letter to the shogun the results of the Opium War that had just ended.

This time I used 44 years for the game because that’s the number of years I worked for the New York office of the Japanese trade agency JETRO, until last June. In 1969, when I was employed by JETRO, Japan had just emerged as the second largest economy, next to the U.S. By leaping backward by 44 years three times, you get to 1837, when the complicated Morrison Incident occurred.

It led, among other things, to the death by disembowelment of one of the more farsighted Japanese intellects of the day, the painter and local government administrator Watanabe Kazan (1793-1841). Here’s what happened:

Charles W. King, the manager of an American trading company in Canton (Guangzhou), wanted to start trading with Japan. As an excuse for approaching the “closed” country, he thought of returning Japanese castaways.

There happened to be seven of them under the protection of the English superintendent of trade in Canton. Such a humanitarian gesture would surely soften Japanese authorities’ obdurate attitude.

When consulted, the English superintendent agreed on condition that one of his officers be allowed to go on board King’s ship, the Morrison.

England didn’t want to miss out on a chance to trade with Japan — if Japan agreed to do so with the U.S.

King’s hopes were dashed. When the Morrison approached Uraga in July, all the batteries opened fire. Though the cannons were too primitive to reach his ship, King had to turn around.

On his way back to Macao, he stopped in Satsuma (Kagoshima). The fiefdom was a little more friendly, but after taking two castaways, they too started firing on him, forcing him to flee, mission unaccomplished.

These details became known because, a year later, the newly appointed head of the trading post, the Dejima, filed a “secret report” with the Nagasaki magistrate. The report, largely based on an account in an English paper published in Singapore, was duly translated and taken to Edo.

A secret report it was, but what it said was leaked by some of the officials involved. This, along with the measures taken in response to the Morrison by the Tokugawa administrator in charge of maritime defense, Mizuno Tadakuni (1794-1851), distressed Kazan, an administrator of a small fiefdom on the Atsumi Peninsula, when the news reached him.

Kazan was starkly aware of the contradictions between the Tokugawa government’s isolationist policy and its decree on maritime defense. Like many other fiefdoms facing the Pacific Ocean, his did not have any defense against anyone who might emerge from the vast seas.

“Military preparations cannot be made without detailed knowledge of the enemy, for without it no schemes can be devised,” Kazan wrote in a commentary for publication.

He explained that he was compelled to record all he had heard about foreign countries including “geography, institutions, customs and events.”

Kazan was a member of a study group on foreign affairs. Japan was isolated, but if you wanted, you could learn a lot about the world via the information provided by the Dutch. Still, much of it was no more than “hearsay not to be believed,” as Kazan himself noted.

Indeed, Kazan went on to make a fascinating error: He took the name of the American merchant ship for that of an English missionary-scholar in China, Robert Morrison (1782-1834). Morrison was “greatly knowledgeable in Chinese studies,” Kazan wrote. He had even seen his “A Dictionary of the Chinese Language, in Three Parts,” printed in Macao.

Kazan admired Morrison’s Chinese scholarship, not just because he heard that “books printed in Holland quote him whenever the matter has to do with China,” but also because “for Europeans to master Chinese is the most tortuous and hardest.”

Kazan went on to detail how the world stood as he knew it. His information was as recent as 1832 as he described what happened in Russia, Poland, Deutschland, and Prussia, following the Napoleonic Wars.

He pointed out that “among the five continents under Heaven, America, Africa, and Australia have already become Europe’s possessions” and that “even in Asia, only our country, China and Persia” remain independent, but “ours is the only one that does not trade with Europe.”

He added with chagrin and foreboding, “from the European viewpoint, our country is like meat thrown on the roadside.”

Kazan ended by lamenting that all those in the positions of power and knowledge were either corrupt or afraid of rocking the boat, “simply waiting for our country to destroy itself.” He realized that he went too far, and did not publish the commentary.

But when a conflict surfaced between conservatives and those a little less conservative in the Tokugawa government, he and some of his study group were arrested, his commentary confiscated.

In the end, while under strict house arrest, he chose to disembowel himself to prevent bringing further trouble to his associates.

Hiroaki Sato is a translator and writer in New York. His most recent book is “Snow in a Silver Bowl: A Quest for the World of Yugen.”

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