The Opening of Japan
After American Commodore Matthew Perry’s arrival in Japan in the early 1850’s, changes occurred in the policies of both the Japanese and those in the Western world. The subsequent treaty and trade agreement between the United States and Japan revolutionized the ways in which the West interacted with Asia and Japan viewed the outside world. While it has been made clear that Perry’s landing sparked a concerted effort by the Japanese government to open up to the West and reap the assumed benefits of modernization, the motives of Westerners varied from economic exploitation of the Japanese to the discovery of new knowledge of an unknown culture. Three journal articles written by Americans in the years 1854 and 1857 depict the Western attitudes toward Japan’s opening. As each article targets a different audience and aims to provide different forms of information, readers are able to understand the impact that Japan’s gradual opening had on cultural knowledge in America and on the nation’s general foreign relations.
Originally written in The Economist, the first article, titled “Japan,” was published in the Home Journal in 1854. As it is in a publication meant for the general public, this article serves as a firsthand account of the first landing in Japan from the point of view of one of Commodore Perry’s associates. The narrator begins by reiterating the American statement that, “the spreading of Europeans over the Islands of the Pacific must soon lead to opening Japan to the trade of the world.” This idea continues throughout the entire article, signifying the American belief that due to the expansion of global commerce, the opening of Japan’s ports was inevitable. The concept of inevitability that the narrator espouses accurately portrays the attitude of the Americans during their visit as the narrator takes note of the absence of conflict or resistance from the Japanese. The observed compliance from the Japanese towards the Americans’ arrival also demonstrates the narrator’s—and that of other Americans—belief that the Japanese were attracted to western goods and lifestyle. The article describes how the Japanese officials thoroughly enjoyed the food and liquor that the Americans officers had brought. The peace and amity between the American and Japanese officials that the narrator describes in the article characterizes the American mission as a peaceful attempt to expand culturally rather than an aggressive takeover of Japan. The article also suggests interesting interpretations of Japanese culture that Americans held at the time. For example, the narrator indicates that much of the lens through which the Americans viewed the Japanese hinged on comparisons with Chinese people as they were the only other contact that Westerners had with the Asian world. The narrator notes the similarities between Chinese and Japanese admiration for Western customs. Despite each culture’s similar fascination with the Western world, the article makes a distinction between each nation’s relations with the United States during its opening. According to the narrator, Japan’s opening to trade with the United States was much more peaceful than China’s, although he attributes much of this success to the leadership of Commodore Perry, writing, “he has done what he did not do in China, and it was not expected any one could accomplish in Japan—he has peacefully and amicably opened it to the intercourse of his countrymen, without firing a shot or using an angry word.” As it is written by a real American who witnesses the opening of Japan during his time on Perry’s expedition, this article expresses the point of view of an ordinary American during Japan’s opening. The desire for peaceful relations between Japan and the United States and the limited knowledge of Japanese culture are demonstrated in the text, and the article also clarifies the Western opinion on the inevitability of expanding trade in Asia and the Pacific.
The next article, “The Japan Expedition, and its Results,” was published in the American journal, Friends’ Review; a Religious, Literary and Miscellaneous Journal in 1854. Also targeting the general public but in contrast with the previous text, this article summarizes the American expedition to Japan, evaluating the consequences of the opening of Japan’s ports. The article begins by stating the author’s belief that the sending of an expedition to Japan was, “one of the most creditable acts of the last Administration.” Much of the article is dedicated to the author’s justification of his or her praise of Perry’s expedition. According to the article, two aspects of the expedition’s results are important. First are the cultural consequences of an open Japan. The author expresses the opinion that the West is culturally superior to Japan or even all of Asia. Describing the Japanese as less than “enlightened,” the author continues with the belief that Japan would benefit from contact with the “Christian world,” as he or she refers to the West. The commercial results of an open Japan are also described by the author as one of the positive results of the expedition. In particular, the author mentions the future supply from Japanese coal depots and the provision of water and other supplies for Americans who visit the coast of Japan. These economic and commercial benefits that the article describes demonstrate the feeling of profit felt by the author and other Americans from the expedition at this time. The article also touches upon a political dimension of Japan’s opening with regard to international relations. According to the author, Russian officials failed in their attempt to fully open trade with Japan, citing Commodore Perry’s success as surpassing the efforts made by other powers to make substantial agreements with Japan. The article closes with an interesting commentary on the role of the United States Navy in American foreign policy, praising expeditions such as Commodore Perry’s one of the more useful functions of the American fleet and writing that, “There is no harm in giving our navy something respectable and useful to do.” This article demonstrates the beliefs held by Americans concerning the benefits of commercial expansion and trade with Japan while also clarifying attitudes of cultural superiority that existed in the West. While briefly mentioning the repercussions that Japan’s opening had on international politics at the time, the article also portrays the views of Americans on the role of American diplomatic and naval power abroad.
The third article, “Japan and its People,” is found in the American Phrenological Journal and was published in 1857. The journal, which contained articles on the science behind the mind and culture, published this article as an exposition on the new knowledge gained from Japan’s opening to the western world. The targeted audience is the more academic sector of American society. Unlike news articles, this text is a report on what the Americans had discovered from the recent expedition to Japan. Overall, the article demonstrates a general admiration for Japanese culture but also shows the biases and perceptions that westerners held towards Asia. Describing Japan as having been “shrouded in mystery,” the article begins by acknowledging the interest that western academics have on the country. The text is then divided to cover the topics of Japan’s government, technology, and social structure. The author holds a negative opinion of the Japanese system of governance, describing its structure as leading to a society where both its citizens and leaders are constantly watched. Adding to the article’s description of Japanese laws as “treacherous,” the author attacks the country’s system of capital punishment. The article blames Japan’s for contributing to the nation’s failure to open to commerce while also suggesting the American system of government to be superior, even quoting Thomas Jefferson in its argument. The author shows more respect for Japan’s advancements in technology, praising them in comparison to those in China. The cultural emphasis of education in Japan is also praised by the author. What seemed to surprise the author of the article was the social structure of Japanese society, particularly the role of women in Japan. As the country was not considered by the author to be on par with Western civilization, the notion that Japanese women were not treated as “slaves” was shocking from the author’s point of view. The veneration that lower classes held for their superiors is described in the article as another foreign concept to the author. Although a scientifically oriented article written on Japanese culture, the text still demonstrates the general American public’s ignorance towards foreign cultures such as Japan’s.
Each article puts the author’s words in the greater context of American views towards Japan in the period directly after its opening. Along with a sense of admiration for Commodore Perry and his expedition, the articles demonstrate Americans’ approval of the opening of Japan due to the commercial and political benefits. The texts also show the belief in American cultural superiority coupled with a great deal of ignorance of Japanese customs and Asian culture in general. These viewpoints certainly add a new dimension to the historical understanding of Japan’s opening, which generally emphasizes the event’s role in bringing modernization to Japan while neglecting the cultural shock felt by the modernizing force, the Americans. These views are drastically different from those held by Americans today as there is much more respect for Japanese culture and a widespread belief in the equality of nations.