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Satow's Perception of the Meiji Revolution

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Between 1853 and 1868, Japanese society underwent a profound and violent societal, economic, and cultural upheaval, the likes of which it had not seen in over 200 years. The ruling military government of Japan, the clan-pure Tokugawa Shogunate and its ancient feudal system of governance, disintegrated under internal pressure to reform to meet the challenges of the Industrial Age, embodied by foreign interests, particularly that of the United States and England, which used the threat of their military and technological superiority to force the Japanese to accept trade agreements.

In doing so, the Shogunate wrote its final chapter and set the state for a return to power of the Emperor, a quasi-religious position which since the 1600s had been relegated to ceremonial duties as the spiritual godfather of Japan, while the Shogunate and its samurai warrior culture administered the country’s affairs. TheBritish Empire of the time was preoccupied initially with wars with Russia and China, but observed with keen interest the initial rumblings of discontent and reform within Japan, precipitated by the bold moves of the United States to establish relations with Japan. Once the British wars had been concluded and Americans had done the proverbial dirty advance work of opening Japan up, the British established their own presence within Japan as it underwent a rapid societal metamorphosis. Over time, various representatives of foreign governments, most notably the eminent British interpreter and diplomat Ernest Satow, went beyond active interest to active involvement in the internal affairs of the Japanese transformation from Tokugawa Shogunate rule to restoration of the power of the Emperor, known as the Meiji revolution. Some of this involvement was self-serving and destructive; some of it was noble, altruistic, and reflected a genuine appreciation and compassion for the Japanese and their unique, noble, and astonishingly complex culture. As with most chapters in history, it is often difficult to discern in retrospect where altruism and self-interest intersected and diverged; the history of Japan’swrenching introduction into the modern age is particularly messy, but only more fascinating for being as such.

In order to explore this era, some chronological narrative is of course required, but a strictly linear structure is not necessarily the most effective way to approach the issues. Therefore, this dissertation will alternate between historical narrative and cultural explication, sometimes moving backwards and forwards in time, and indulging in anecdotal tangents as well as delvings into the personal histories of some of the players in question, all in hopes of painting a full and complex picture of the interlocking forces – Japanese, American, and British, which turned this tiny country upside down in the short space of 15 years and set the stage for its rise to global power. (A full investigation of the Japanese relations with Russia, China, and the Dutch could easily comprise a dissertation of its own, but we will limit most of our focus here to the often tragic, but often edifying interaction of the Japanese with the two aforementioned Western powers.) Lastly, it is important to note that no exploration of Japan’s relations with the West during the Tokugama Shogunate /Meiji Revolution era, or any era for that matter, is complete without dwelling occasionally in details of Japanese culture, which are alternately arcane and compelling. Such moments will be interwoven with the historical narratives and observations as required.

In 1854, the United States and Japan signed the Treaty of Kanagawa, which opened up Japan economically and culturally to the West for the first time. Up until this point in time, ancient Japanese law forbade trade with any foreign nations other than China and the Dutch, the latter of which were allowed to visit Japan twice a year to do business solely at the port of Nagasaki; even then, the foreigners’ presence was confined to the small island of Deshima. The signing of the treaty was a momentous occasion for both the United States and Japan, but it was not necessarily an egalitarian or mutually beneficial agreement, nor did both parties come to the signing ceremony of their own free will.Commodore Matthew Perry, representing the United States, essentially forced the Japanese into signing the treaty by virtue of the threat of his heavily armed four-warship fleet which arrived in Edo Bay (Tokyo’sharbor; Tokyo was known as Edo during Tokugawa Shogunate dynasty) – aport forbidden to foreigners -- in July 1853 and refused to depart until the Japanese consented to enter into a trade and peace agreement between the two nations. Perry was acting under orders from the highest authority in the United States, his Commander in Chief, President Millard Fillmore. Perry arrived bearing a letter fromPresident Fillmore to Emperor Kōmei (who reigned from 1831-1867 and was the 121st imperial ruler of Japan). The letter was an eager one, and contained several passages full of obsequious language:

I entertain the kindest feelings toward your majesty's person and government, and that I have no other object in sending [CommodorePerry] to Japan but to propose to your imperial majesty that the UnitedStates and Japan should live in friendship and have cornmercial intercourse with each other… The Constitution and laws of the UnitedStates forbid all interference with the religious or political concerns of other nations. I have particularly charged Commodore Perry to abstain from every act which could possibly disturb the tranquility of your imperial majesty's dominions… We have directed Commodore Perry to beg your imperial majesty's acceptance of a few presents. They are of no great value in themselves, but some of them may serve as specimens of the articles manufactured in the United States, and they are intended as tokens of our sincere and respectful friendship.(Fillmore, 1852)

However, the letter also contained notable amounts of braggadocioregarding the economic and technological might at the disposal of theUnited States:
The [territories of the United States of America reach from ocean to ocean, and our Territory of Oregon and State of California lie directly opposite to the dominions of your imperial majesty. Our steamships can go from California to Japan in eighteen days… Our great State of California produces about sixty millions of dollars in gold every year, besides silver, quicksilver, precious stones, and many other valuable article… America, which is sometimes called the New World, was first discovered and settled by the Europeans. For a long time, there were but a few people, and they were poor. They have now become quite numerous; their commerce is very extensive. (Fillmore, 1852)

The subtext was clear. Though polite and solicitous to almost comic fault, Fillmore made it clear that it was in Japan’s best interests to cooperate with the United States in opening itself up to foreign trade, or Japan might meet the same fate as Mexico, which the United States had obliterated and territorially eviscerated in a warning just four years prior to Perry’s visit to Japan. To punctuate the subtext of his letter, Fillmore did not send Perry across thePacific Ocean in a yacht armed only with flowers; Perry sailed into Yedo Bay with an unmistakable symbol of United States might, his state-of-the-art mini-fleet.

Why the particular interest in Japan, a relatively small nation? Itwas strategically located, a gateway to the Far East, and influence over/in, and/or control of Japan would greatly expand American’smilitary and economic power. Japan was also a nation of important natural resources that could be used to feed the hungry monster of theWest’s burgeoning Industrial Revolution. As samurai scholar MarcelThach notes, “after the colonization of China, the Western Powers --America in particular -- turned their eye towards Japan and saw a country rich with coal deposits, one which they could colonize and exploit as they had China and other East Asian nations such as India.”(Thach, 2002)

The Japanese were initially unmoved by President Fillmore’s letter, leaving Commodore Perry to stew in the harbor with the expectation that he would simply tire and go home. This was not to be the case, however, as Perry quickly saw fit to turn up the proverbial heat on the Japanese by sending a letter of his own to the Emperor. In it, Perry reiterated some of the niceties expressed by President Fillmore, but then delivered some language of a level of candor to which the Japanese were not accustomed:

[I] hope that the Japanese government will see the necessity of averting unfriendly collision between the two nations, by responding favourably to the propositions of amity, which are now made in all sincerity… Many of the large ships-of-war destined to visit Japan have not yet arrived in these seas, though they are hourly expected; and the undersigned, as an evidence of his friendly intentions, has brought but four of the smaller ones, designing, should it become necessary, to return to Edo in the ensuing spring with a much larger force. (Perry, 7 July 1853)

The Japanese remained unmoved, provoking Commodore Perry’s temper. Diplomatic subtleties were abandoned, and on July 14, 1853, he delivered an imperious admonishment accusing the Japanese of a sin against God, in effect, and threatened to fire upon the harbor:
You have … acted against divine principles and your sin cannot be greater than it is… If you are still to disagree we would then take up arms and inquire into the sin against the divine principles…When one considers such an occasion… one will realize the victory will naturally ours. (Perry, 14 July 1853)

At this juncture, the virulent and ingrained xenophobia of the Japanese culture was forced to yield to common sense. The Japanese had no navy to speak of, and though Perry’s four ships were unlikely to comprise enough force to cause the Japanese to comply, the threat of an imminent arrival of a bona fide armada induced the Japanese to capitulate and sign the treaty of Kanagawa. (In the wake of the capitulation, the Japanese dispatched an order to their Dutch trading partners to commission the building of a warship, which was named theKanrin-maru and was 49 meters in length, with 12 canons and three masts. It was delivered somewhat belatedly in 1857, but was put to good use as a military training vessel.)

It is important to pause here to explicate the amorphous term “the Japanese.” At the time of Perry’s arrival in Tokyo, Japan was indeed technically ruled by an Emperor, but he was largely a spiritual and traditional figurehead who wielded minimal political power. The locus of decision-making was controlled by a chief shôgun (which in Japanese means “great general”), a direct descendent of Tokugawa leyasu, who in1603 defeated rival warlords to bring a semblance of organizational coherence to a Japanese society dominated by the fractious conflicts between feudal warlords. (In fact, the Tokugawa Shogunate, as the organization came to be known, ruled in relative peace for the next 250 years in what was called the Edo Period, after the ancient name for the city of Tokyo.) From 1603 on, the chief shôgun henceforth always carried the Tokugawa clan title, and maintained power by executing rivals and replacing them with family members and trusted allies, who were forbidden to marry outside the Tokugawa clan and allowed to rule their individual local dominions with a relatively free and arbitrary hand as long as they loyally served the chief shôgun.

Furthermore, all other shôguns and feudal lords were forced to attend a grand gathering in Tokyo / Edo every other year under the watchful eye of the Tokugawas hôgun, where loyalties were reinforced and tested, and suspected traitors ferreted out. Additionally, other lords were required to keep heirs or wives in Tokyo while they were administering to their duties in their respective feudal domains, which was another powerful tool of the Tokugawa clan to maintain its control. A strict hierarchical caste system had also established by the Tokugawa Shogunate; atop this pyramid was the infamous warrior class of the samurai, the subjects of much awe and reverence among Western cultures. Below the samurai were farmers, artisans, and traders. Meanwhile, the Emperor himself resided in Kyoto, accompanied by a few servants and bureaucrats to tend to his ceremonial needs, but he exercised virtually no governing power at all.

It was under this repressive cloak that the xenophobic culture ofJapan was cultivated and its restrictive trade policies enacted into law. The third in the Tokugawa shôgun lineage, Tokugawa Iemitsu, established the rules forbidding almost all foreign trade and interaction. Only inbound trading ships were permitted, and of the visitors, the Dutch and the Chinese were the only ones allowed. This was not merely an exercise in preserving Japanese culture purity, however. Tokugawa Iemitsu was keenly concerned with maintaining his clan's power over the opposing feudal warlords, and he knew that cultural, religious, military, and economic influences from other countries could destabilize the already precarious balance of power.The economic and cultural modernization and maturation within the large cities was, by the 19th century, starting to create conflict within the caste system, which began to teeter under the weight of its own stubborn antiquity. This was the complex environment into which Commodore Perry sailed his four ships in July 1853: a paranoid, secretive, and warlike culture steeped in Byzantine traditions but also militarily and technologically steeped in the past, and thus unable to defend its sovereignty. The forced signing of the treaty was the beginning of a long road of resentment towards the United States and the West that culminated in Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.

In the immediate meantime, however, the Treaty of Kanagawa was finally signed on March 31, 1854 after Commodore Perry’s return toJapan. It stipulated that the ports of Shimoda and Hakodate would be opened to American ships seeking supplies, that American sailors who had been shipwrecked would be rescued and well-treated, and agreed that an American consulate would be established in Shimoda for the purposes of negotiating a further and more comprehensive trade agreement. This treaty was the beginning of a succession of agreements forced upon the Japanese that brought about a great influx of foreign investment, trade, and business into Japan, but the economic effects of this phenomenon were not all salutary. One such deleterious effect was massive inflation of the Japanese currency. The caste system under the Tokugawa Shogunate mandated a rigid system of taxation on the peasantry; the taxes were fixed and not fairly tied to inflation or other economic vagaries, and thus the taxes gathered by the rulingshôguns fell steeply in the wake of the Treaty of Kanagawa, causing ironic clashes between the well-to-do working class and their rulers.Arguably better warriors than macro-economists, the shôgun were unable to curtail this inflation, and the resultant economic instability and hardships inflicted on the Japanese people caused a popular unrest that could not be quelled for very long, and fact led to civil war. By1867, the Shogunate had been overthrown in what became known as the Meiji Rebellion, which restored the Emperor to true power beyond the ceremonial, and brought about a thorough reform of the organization of Japanese government and society.

One of the intermediary steps on the way to the weakening of the Shogunate and the restoration of the Emperor’s rule was another treaty between the United States, The Treaty of Amity and Commerce Between theUnited States and Japan, better known historically as the Treaty of Townsend Harris, named after the persistent American diplomat who persuaded the Japanese to sign it. As alluded to previously, the Treaty of Kanagawa had stipulated the creation of an American Consulate in Japan, which would open up negotiations on the specifics of trade negotiation. President Franklin Pierce, who had replaced President Fillmore in March 1853, dispatched Townsend Harris from New York in November 1855 to establish the Consulate and coax the Japanese into actual trade, not simply the intent to trade. Harris arrived in Shimoda in August 1856, having cannily brought along a Dutch-speaking secretary and interpreter named Henry Heuksen to facilitate the difficult and delicate nuances of discourse with the Japanese.However, the Japanese, in a typical stalling maneuver, asked Harris to leave and return in a year. He refused; the Japanese asked him to proceed to Nagasaki, which he declined to do; then, in a final – and rather creative – attempt to rid themselves of Harris, they asked him to write a letter back to the President James Buchanan (who had succeeded Pierce in the November 1856 election) requesting a cancellation of his diplomatic mission. The indefatigable Harris refused this request as well, and eventually the Japanese allowed him to set up an office at the port of Shimoda. Nonetheless, they continued to stonewall Harris by referring any request or question, whether trivial or consequential, to the Emperor’s palace in Edo.Harris demanded an audience with the shôgun in the capital, but over a year passed before Harris received permission to travel to Edo.

Harris did not sit idly by, however; he used the intervening time to cultivate favor and good will with the powers-that-were in Shimoda, the local members of the Tokugawa bafuku. (Bafuku is a Japanese word loosely translated to mean “tent government” and is an arm, during this historical period, of the Tokugawa Shogunate) Harris was well aware that the British had paid a visit to the Japanese in 1854 that did not go well and left a bitter taste in the proverbial mouths of both parties. The British, mired in a conflict with the Russians that led to the Crimean War (1854-1856) had dispatched Sir James Stirling fromChina in 1855 to request that the Japanese deny Russian ships access to their ports and attempt to secure some sort of initial trade understanding with the Japanese. Stirling did conclude a treaty, but it was hopelessly vague and of limited utility, in part because of an incompetent translator (a hitch keenly noted by Harris) and was sent on his way. The British lurched from the Crimean War to the Second OpiumWar with China in 1856, distracting them from immediate focus on Japan,but Harris correctly surmised it would only be a matter of time before the British turned their attention to Japan again, and used it, albeit with some fictional license, as leverage in his negotiations against the Japanese.

Despite managing to offend the chief shogun, the aged TokugawaIesada, and his Court by wearing shoes during his visit to the Palace in Edo in December 1857, Harris’ otherwise impeccable statesmanship impressed the Shogunate sufficiently that they gave their blessing for the treaty negotiations, and they gave permission for Bakufu GrandCouncillor Hotta Masayoshi, with whom Harris had been negotiating, to continue working with Harris to complete the treaty. Harris immediately set to work convincing Masayoshi with a combination of exaltations of American good intentions and fears of an inevitable British arrival on Japanese soil which would demand treaty terms far less generous than that ‘suggested’ by the American. Specifically, Harris preyed on the fears of the Japanese that the only thing standing between Japan and the imperial pressure of the British was their soon-to-be-concluded war against China. The Japanese had long heldChina in a place of cultural reverence in the Far East and had been profoundly shocked at the relative ease with which the French and British were defeating the Chinese in the Second Opium War. Aware of this, naturally, Harris used it to his advantage. In his December 12, 1857 audience with Masayoshi, Harris had this to say:

On my way to Japan I met the English governor of Hong-Kong, JohnBowring, who told me that he was about to be appointed an ambassador to go to Japan, and I have received four letters from him since my arrival in Japan. Our conversation was of course private, but in his letters he discusses Japanese Government matters. He says he intends to bring with him a larger fleet than the Japanese have ever seen, and anchor at Yedo, {Edo] where the discussions will be carried on. He says also that Yedo is the only place to hold consultation with the Japanese; that his object is, first, to get permission for a minister or agent of England to reside in Yedo, and, secondly, to get permission to carry on free trade at several places in Japan. If these two things are not granted war will be declared at once. The sending of this ambassador he says is delayed by the war in China. He said he would be in Yedo in the third month, but he has been detained by the war. (Harris, 1857)

In another dramatic touch, Harris also asserted that the British intended to addict the entirety of the Japanese population to opium:

It appears that the English think the Japanese ... are fond of opium, and they want to bring it here also. If a man use opium once he cannot stop it, and it becomes a life-long habit to use opium; hence the English want to introduce it into Japan. The President of theUnited States thinks that for the Japanese opium is more dangerous than war. (Harris, 1857)

What Harris neglected to mention was that in truth, the British were loathe to try to force an opening into Japan at this particular juncture in time. They had squandered vast military and political capital in pursuit of their war with China, and there was domestic unrest to contend with as well:

Despite popular perceptions of British imperialism at this period, official British policy was in fact against the use of force in opening up Japan and British Ministers were mindful of humanitarian considerations that might lead to criticism in Parliament. They instructed British representatives to avoid provocative acts and the threat or use of force. (Cortazzi, 1999)

Nonetheless, Harris then went on to claim that the United States had studiously avoided joining Britain in the war against China, despite the fact that newly elected President Buchanan was a veteran diplomat and former Secretary of State who, in his former diplomatic position,and now, as President-elect, was actively working towards mending old grievances with Britain. Harris suggested that if the Japanese come to mutually satisfactory terms with the United States, particularly with respect to the issue of opium trade – Harris suggested that the Japanese could burn any opium which American traders might bring to ports in the future – then in effect, the United States would form a defacto protective buffer between Japan and the European powers, and at the very least, treaty terms with Britain or France could be no worse for the Japanese than the benevolent terms of a treaty with the UnitedStates. In fact, the treaty proposed (in Article II) that in any dispute between Japan and European powers, the United States president would serve as mediator.

Hotta Masayoshi was no fool, and despite the fact that the Shogunate had responded to Commodore Perry’s presence by commissioning military vessels from its Dutch trading partners, Masayoshi knew the Japanese had little choice at this particular juncture in time but to accede toHarris’ terms. Negotiations on Treaty of Townsend Harris were concluded in February 1858 and the treaty was signed on July 29, 1858.(Ironically, Commodore Perry died in New York City the same day.)Harris, never one to miss an opportunity for some patriotic public relations, ensured that the treaty was stipulated to take effect on July 4, 1859, on American Independence Day. Little did the Japanese know that they had taken another ominous step towards the erosion of their own cultural-economic independence.

The treaty provided for the opening of four additional ports to American trading ships: Kanagawa and Nagasaki, on July 4, 1859;Niigata, on the January 1, 1860; and Hyogo, on the January 1, 1863; the port of Shimoda would be closed to American beginning in January 1860.Starting on July 4, 1862, Americans would also be allowed to take up residence in Edo. It provided for tariffs to be applied to American goods imported into Japan and exported to the United States, and forbade the trade of opium between the Unites States and Japan. The tariffs – unsurprisingly -- favored imported American products with a five percent tax on most goods and raw materials. The treaty stipulated that this tariff was fixed until the treaty came up for revision and renegotiation in 1872, sowing the seeds for the economic instability, alluded to above, that led to the downfall of the Shogunate. In particularly surprising concession, the treaty stipulated that Americans in Japan would be allowed free exercise of their religious beliefs, which extended to permission to construct places of worship. This was a significant break with Japanese tradition, which had long been steeped with animosity towardsChristianity. In fact, Christianity was essentially forbidden, andHarris had taken a considerable personal risk by making a show of his Christian beliefs when he visited the Shogunate in Edo in 1858.Despite a clause in the treaty that seemed to forbid Christian proselytizing (“The Americans and Japanese shall not do anything that may be calculated to excite religious animosity” (Article VII), the influx of Christianity into the Japanese homeland was deeply offensive to many traditionalist and contributed to the erosion of support for the Shogunate.

Another interesting stipulation of the treaty is that diplomatic envoys from Japan would be sent to the United States for the purposes of cultural exchange and for a ‘formal’ treaty-signing ceremony. Three Japanese were selected for the journey: Shimmi Masaoki, the senior ambassador, who was only 35 years of age; Oguri Tadamasu, who carried the title of ‘official inspector’ for the diplomatic mission; andMurgaki Norimasa, who kept a detailed diary of the delegation’s visit.Each were samurai warriors, consistent with the ruling class from which they came, and knew next to nothing of American culture or the peculiarities of Western culture, much less the American government;for example, the Japanese found it bizarre that the Americans had gone through three elected leaders in a peaceful transition of power between the time Commodore Perry had paid his infamous visit and the Japanese delegation left to visit the United States. In an attempt to show strength and regal power, the three Japanese did not travel alone –their party numbered 77, including six cooks, 51 guards and servants, three doctors, and three interpreters. It was quite a showcase:

On February 13, 1860, the ambassadors and their staff sailed from Yokohama with 50 tons of Japanese baggage (including the treaty in its special box), 100,000 readily negotiable Mexican dollars, and a large supply of Japanese food. Appropriately, perhaps, the vessel that carried them from Japan to San Francisco was the navy frigate Powhatan, one of the steam-powered paddle-wheelers Perry had employed in"opening" Japan. (Finn, 2002)

The America into which the Japanese were received in May 1860, was teetering on the precipice of a civil war which would forever alter its destiny, mirroring the dark seeds of revolution which were germinating back home in Japan. To say that the Japanese experienced culture shock was an understatement; it was a precursor to the shocks that would reverberate through Japanese culture in their homeland due to the floodgates of external Western cultural influence that were being opened by the Harris Townsend Treaty that the Japanese envoys signed with President Buchanan on May 18.

Upon their return home in November 1860, the Japanese delegation was greeted coolly, as the elements in the Shogunate that had approved the treaty had begun to fall from favor. Murgaki Norimasa and ShimmiMasaoki received promotions but were soon forced into retirement.Oguri Tadamasu went on to become a powerful military leader for theShogunate, but he refused to accept their downfall and the eventual re-ascension of the Emperor; he and his son were executed in 1868.

The interior map of Japanese political and cultural power was a tumultuous mess by the time the delegation returned to Japan. The Tokugawa Shogunate had splintered into two warring factions due to the controversy regarding the signings of the two treaties with the UnitedStates and fears of imminent meddling by the British into Japanese affairs. Tokugawa Iesada had become an old and infirm man and was barely able to carry out his duties during the negotiations over the Townsend Harris Treaty. Compounding the fractious debate over whether or not to agree to the treaty was a struggle brewing over who would succeed Iesada, as Iesada had no natural heir. The two leading contenders were Tokugawa Yoshinobu (aka Keiki), and a 12-year old boy, the Daimyo of Kii. In an attempt to solidify the ebbing power of the Tokugawa clan and to end the debate over the the treaty signings, the latter of which he had brokered, Hotta Masayoshi broke with precedent and traveled to Kyoto to visit Emperor Komei to seek his approval for the Harris Treaty and for the ascension of the Daimyo of Kii to head the Shogunate. Unfortunately for Hotta, his gamble backfired. TheEmperor communicated his unhappiness with the treaties and refused to offer his support for Tokugawa Yoshinobu / Keiki. Hotta was humiliated and was replaced in April 1858 by Ii Naosuke, who was appointedTokugawa Regent, making him the effective military leader of Japan and head of the shogun council.

Ii immediately approved the Townsend Harris Treaty, effectively snubbing the Emperor, which caused a widespread rebellion amongst Imperial Japanese loyalists who literally revered the Emperor as a god and who viewed action against his wishes to be a mortal sin.Undaunted, Ii then proceeded to arbitrarily appointed the boy Daimyo of Kii as the Shogunate heir, spawning a massive rebellion. Those who opposed his sanctioning of the Treaty and/or his appointment of theShogunate heir were executed en masse, in a bloodbath dubbed the AnseiPurge. Being of tender age, naturally, the Daimyo of Kii – who assumed the name Tokugawa Iemochi -- was unable to assert his sovereign will or assume his duties, leaving Ii firmly entrenched in power, or so he thought. His rule did not last long; he was beheaded by anti-foreigner, pro-Emperor elements in March 1860. After Ii was assassinated, Tokugawa Yoshinobu, who had been Tokugawa Iemochi’searlier rival for the position of Shogun, assumed effective control of the Shogunate by assuming a position of power similar to the one held by Ii and Hotta before him. After Tokugawa Iemochi’s death in 1866, Tokugawa Yoshinobu assumed the official ceremonial title and power of Shogun. He was to be the fifteenth and last Shogun in Japanese history.

Certainly, the arrival of the Americans and the treaties they forced upon the Shogunate were a leading cause of their downfall, but the Shogunate was already weakening under its own antiquated weight by the time Commodore Perry arrived in Japan in 1853. Though very stable and consistent, the philosophy and structure of the Shogunate government was change-averse to a fault; it was 200 years old, and had simply outlived its usefulness:

The simple concept of the division of classes into rulers, warriors and commoners had little relation to Japan of the 19th century with its teeming cities, rich merchants, restless samurai, and discontent peasantry… Despite the division of the land into a large number of feudal fiefs, the people had developed a strong sense of national consciousness. The growth of nationalism and the development of a modern commercial economy had made Japan ready for the more efficient political forms of the modern nation. (Norman, 1940)

To some degree, the nationalism of the Japanese was reflective of the psychology of isolation, i.e., the Japanese, knowing nothing other than their own culture, naturally viewed it as superior. The appearance and encroachment of a culture, such as Americans’, which was technologically superior, was a profound shock to the Japanese. TheShogunate, at a time when putting forth a unified and strong front was key, blundered initially by putting Commodore Perry’s initial treaty proposal up for public debate, which was an unusual move for the Japanese, signaling to the population that it was weak. Hotto’sill-fated attempt to persuade the Emperor to support the treaty, and to involve him in the family succession issue within the Tokugama clan, was also a nail in the proverbial coffin, furthering the perception that the Shogunate was weak.

Slowly, an unlikely coalition of anti-bafuku entities coalesced to undermine the power of the Shogunate. Not all parties were necessarily advocates of the ending of the Tokugawa dynasty, but all agreed that the Shogunate’s indecisiveness, stalling, and inconsistent policy making since 1853 had greatly weakened Japan’s strength as a nation both internally and externally. The coalition, over time, came to includemiddle-to-lower class samurai, mostly from the western clans of Tosa, Hizen, Satsuma, and Choshu; the kuge, or the Emperor and his court, whoafter centuries of staying out of the mechanics of governance, had cometo believe that the Shogunate had not only usurped the power of the Emperor, but stained its dignity and divinity; merchants, from citiessuch as Osaka and Kyoto, whose support went beyond the moral and helpedfund revolutionary forces; and lastly, the peasants, whose economicdiscontent led them to provide moral support and also, quite literally, bodies – towards the end of the Shogunate dynasty, they were enlistedas soldiers to fight in the revolution, a break from Japanese traditionwhich relied on the samurai class to engage in Japan’s wars.

It is important to note here that the socio-cultural and economic forces that led to the disintegration and overthrow of the Shogunate did not resemble those of other notable modern revolutions, such as theFrench or American. The Meiji Revolution, as it came to be known(after the name of the Emperor who assumed rule over Japan after the15th Shogun), was not revolution for democracy, or a revolution in which the lower classes bound together to overthrow the repressive yolk of an indolent and tyrannical ruling class:

In studying Japanese social history, it becomes apparent that one must dismiss all preconceptions based on a class-struggle interpretation…[The Meiji Revolution] was not the story of a rising business class that destroyed the structure of feudalism and established its supremacy in a mercantile state. Still less was it a democratic revolt transferring political power to representative of the mass of the peasants and workers. (Norman, 1940)

Nor was the discontent with the Shogunate necessarily an issue of hatred of foreigners; many within the Imperial Court and other anti-Shogunate forces (and even within the Shogunate itself), despite their loathing of the ‘barbarians,’ as many termed foreigners, reasonedthat the best way for Japan to ensure its survival was to embrace useful Western technologies and military tactics; the temporarydistaste for Western influences the majority of Japanese may have hadto endure for a time would be ameliorated by the Japanese eventuallyco-opting the Westerners’ own superiority and using it against them.This is in fact exactly what eventually occurred.

Having obtained word of the favorable outcome, at least from the British perspective, of Townsend Harris’ negotiations with theJapanese, James Bruce, the 8th British Earl of Elgin, included in hisFar East trip to China a diplomatic stop in Edo on August 17, 1858.He had little idea of what his chances would be to make any tradeheadway with the Japanese. He was personally loathe to engage in anyhardball tactics against the Japanese, having grown weary of thebrutality utilized against the Chinese: “Elgin had no desire to transfer to Japan the methods he had foundnecessary in China… Hewanted to like the Japanese…He sometimes wonderedwhether Japan might not be better without treaty relations, whether, indeed, treaties might not bring her only ‘misery and ruin.’” (Cortazi, 1999) However, the Japanese were in acooperative frame of mind, and had abandoned their stalling tactics.In his favor, the Earl also had been given use by Townsend Harris ofhis Dutch interpreter-secretary, Mr. Heusken; in addition, he hadbrought with him a steam yacht that Sir James Stirling had promised togive as a gift to the Shogun in 1855. Astonishingly, the Earl wasable to conclude, on August 26, 1858, a treaty of his own with theJapanese that was inspired by and, in its final incarnation., largelymirrored the agreement which Townsend Harris had made, right down tothe treaty’s title. The Earl secured similar port-opening privilegesfor the British as the Americans had obtained, and also was able toobtain permission for the opening of a diplomatic office in Edo. Thesame inequitable tariff structure was agreed upon, unfortunately, whichwould only compound the instability and resentment against theShogunate as alluded to previously.

Sir Rutherford Alcock arrived in Edo in 1859, to assume the positionof British consul to Japan; he was soon promoted to the title ofMinister. Alcock began his career as a doctor, then joined themilitary to serve as a surgeon for the marines in the First Carlist Warwith Spain. He was later appointed deputy inspector-general forhospitals, a position from which he retired in 1837. In 1842, however,he responded to his government’s call and went to Fuchow, China, tobecome consul there. He distinguished himself under difficultcircumstances, mastering the intricacies of a culture as ancient andcomplex as that of the Japanese, and was hence awarded his assignmentto Japan in 1858. However, given the fact that the British positionin Japan was not one of inherent power, as de facto conquerors, as itwas in China – the British were at best uneasily tolerated guests –Alcock quickly found himself struggling to execute hisresponsibilities. “His biggest problems arose from the weakness,vacillations, prevarications and deceptions of the Japanese authoritieswith whom he had to deal, but he was also not helped by the greed of,and sleaze prevailing among, the first British merchants who came toJapan.” (Cortazi, 1999) Many of the merchants were unfamiliar with anduninterested in the Japanese culture, and focused primarily onmaximizing their trading profits and exiting. This did not help theircause with the local Japanese who regarded the British as rude,uncouth, and lacking in civility. As the power of the Shogunate overits local principalities began to disintegrate during their internecinesquabble, British diplomatic personnel in Edo and in the local portsbecame increasingly unsafe. None of the treaties signed with the Westcontained any stipulations for protection of the foreign diplomats ortraders; either this was naively overlooked, or the provisions in thetreaties regarding prosecution of Japanese or British/American criminalactivities were thought to adequate. They were not. On July 5, 1861,the British Legation at Shinagawa was attacked by a large party ofronin, or renegade samurai warriors. Alcock narrowly escaped with hislife, and members of his party were wounded. Another attack occurredthe following year while Alcock was vacationing back home in England.It was widely believed that the would-be assassins were rebelliousmembers of the Satsuma clan.

It is worth pausing here to explain the concept of the ronin. Theywere samurai who had lost their masters – princes or other dignitarieshigher up on the Shogunate food chain -- either because their mastershad been killed or fallen into disrepute. Under Japanese cultural codeat the time, samurai could not enter into the employ of a new masterwithout permission from the previous one, which in the case of anuntimely master’s death made it difficult to secure such permission.These ronin often committed suicide or became seedy, ruthlessmercenaries desperate for survival. The increasing instability andinfighting of the Tokugawa Shogunate during the American and British‘opening’ of Japan resulted in many samurai being forced into roninstatus, and many blamed the influx of foreigners for their unfortunatefates. Henry Heusken, Harris Townsend’s secretary and interpreter,made a prophetic observation about them:

The ronin, although they are rogues, always wear two swords because oftheir noble birth, even though their hearts are depraved. Having losttheir reputations as honorable men, they wish to regain respect bygaining an evil reputation. They wish to demonstrate everywhere thatthey are brave and the man who has the most scars is looked upon astheir chief and is honored accordingly. (Van Der Corput, 1964, p. 182)

Heusken was immensely popular amongst many Japanese for his kindnessand respect of them, and his willingness to learn their language andimmerse himself in their culture. He enjoyed spending his free timemingling with common Japanese citizens. For this reason he made aneasy target, both symbolically and literally, for those elements wholoathed the foreigners’ presence on Japanese soil. Huesken was warnedon January 7, 1861, by Oguri Tadamasu, the inspector general who hadvisited the United States the previous year, of rumours of an imminent,large-scale attack on the American Legation by rogue forces. On thenight of January 15, Heusken was attacked by seven ronin whilereturning from the Prussian embassy, and mortally wounded. He managedto survive for a day, despite laying on the road without medicalattention for almost 90 minutes in the aftermath of the attack.Townsend Harris was so shocked and distraught by Heusken’s murder thatit was rumoured that he went temporarily insane. He submitted hisresignation to President Lincoln on July 10, 1861, and shortly beforeyear’s end, he left Japan forever despite pro-American factions in theShogunate’s entreaties to President Lincoln that he stay on asambassador.

In the aftermath of Huesken’s murder and the first attack on theBritish Legation, Alcock made the decision to withdraw the bulk of theBritish diplomatic corps to Yokohama. Within months, the British senttroops to Yokohama, as did the French (who had signed their own treatywith the Japanese in 1858) – an action not sanctioned by Lord Elgin’streaty and a move which, though reasonable in terms of self-defense,did little to endear the British to the Japanese. Alcock was becomingprogressively disillusioned with the situation in Japan after havingbeen initially entranced and possessing charitable and respectfulfeelings for the Japanese:
..although the original negotiators were received with smiles, andtheir path strewn with flowers, their successors had only the poisonedchalice held to their lips, thorns in their path, and the scowl of thetwo-sworded samurai to welcome them, whenever they ventured to leavetheir gates, while the assassin haunted their steps, and broke theirrest in the still hours of the night with fell intent to massacred thewhole Legation." (Williams, 1963, p. 58)

The British were to find themselves taking the military and diplomaticlead in Japan during this time period. Heusken’s murder and theincreasing attacks on the British had dimmed Harris’ interest inJapanese affairs; both he and Alcock had concluded that the Shogunatewas becoming too weak a political entity to either maintain internalstability or safeguard the foreign diplomats and traders. Also, theAmerican Civil War, which had been fomenting for some time, violentlycommenced in April 1861 and soon commanded virtually all the attentionand military resources of the U.S. government. Immediately precedinghis decision to resign, Harris wrote his Secretary of State, WilliamSeward, informing him of the attacks on the British Legation.Unsurprisingly, given the matters compelling his attention, Seward didnot respond until October, but the content of his reply was telling:

The assaults committed upon the minister of Great Britain and the othermembers of that legation, in violation of express treaty, of the lawsof nations, and of the principles of common humanity, have excited adeep concern on the part of the President. Your prompt, earnest, anddecided proceedings in aid of the just desire of her BritannicMajesty's minister to obtain adequate satisfaction for that out ragemeet his emphatic approval. I have lost no time in assuring the Britishgovernment directly of the willingness of the United States toco-operate with it in any judicious measure it may suggest to insuresafety hereafter to diplomatic and consular representatives of thewestern powers in Japan. (Seward, 1861)

These were no mere diplomatic niceties. Seward was keenly awarethat the Confederacy, the rebel South which had seceded from the Union(the North) to prompt the Civil War, had been actively soliciting thesupport of England and France in the war, to such an extent that theentreaties went beyond simple economic and military assistance toformal requests that England and France enter the war on the side ofthe Confederacy. Cotton, which was the number one export of theAmerican South, was also a lucrative source of revenue for Europe, andthe British and French were loathe to consider the economicconsequences of a potential disruption or outright loss of thiscommodity. The first 18 months of the war had gone disastrously forthe Union, and such intervention on the part of either England orFrance would have likely tipped the scales fatally in favor of theConfederacy. Seeking to shore up Union support with the British,Seward essentially was signaling his approval, on behalf of PresidentLincoln, for the British to take the lead in Japan and sort the matterout as they saw fit, with enthusiastic Union support. Beyond that, theUnion simply did not have the military resources to send additionalships and men to Japan to attend to the problem. Harris was surelyaware of this, and between his grief for the murder of Heusken and thedeteriorating internal Japanese situation – not incidentally, hepersonally disliked Alcock -- he elected to end his diplomatic careerat its zenith and return to the United States, effectively cedingcontrol of diplomatic leadership to Alcock and the British.

In 1862, Alcock accompanied a group of Japanese dubbed the JapaneseMission, to Europe and to England as part of the original treatystipulations signed by Lord Elgin. One of the official purposes of theportion of the visit to London was to make progress in further tradenegotiations with the Japanese. An agreement was signed there on June6, 1862, which came to be known as the London Protocol. Given thesecurity concerns, and as a gesture of help to the ever-falteringTokugawa Shogunate to modulate British influx into Japan, Alcock andthe British Foreign Secretary agreed that the opening of the ports ofNiigata and Hyogo (also known as Kobe), as well as the establishment ofBritish residences in Edo and Osaka, would be deferred for five years.In exchange, and perhaps under duress due guilt over the violenceagainst the British, the Japanese agreed to: abolish ‘all restrictions, as regards quantity or price, on the sale byJapanese to foreigners of all kinds of merchandise’. Other articlesabolished restrictions on the hire of Japanese labour and otherrestrictions limiting trade in the Treaty Ports as well as‘restrictions imposed on free intercourse of a social kind betweenforeigners and the people of Japan’. (Cortazzi, 1999)

The penalty for failure to comply with any of these treatyprovisions was that the delays on opening of ports and residences wouldbe negated. This, particularly combined with the language facilitatingcultural interchange, set up an impossible Catch-22 that only served toexacerbate the steadily deteriorating situation in Japan.

Unsurprisingly, then, it was not long after Alcock had returned toJapan that the violence resurfaced in dramatic fashion. On September14, 1862, a British merchant from Shanghai named Charles LennoxRichardson was murdered in Yokohama by Satsuma samurai. Richardson andtwo comrades happened to be passing a 1,000-man procession of theSatsuma daimyo (feudal leader/clan warlord) Shimazu Hisamitsu on theTokaido road in Yokohoma. It was Japanese custom to dismount one’shorse out of respect to a daimyo if one happened to pass by; Richardsonand his party failed to do after being ordered to do so. Whether thistranspired out of intrasigence or out of ignorance is still a matter ofdebate. In any case, they were attacked by samurai from Shimazu’sprocession in this gruesome event that became known as the NamanugiIncident. (In what was doubtlessly not a coincidence, the particularsamurai who killed Richardson turned out to be the older brother of thesamurai who had assassinated Ii Naosuke two years earlier.) Alcock wasshocked, and demanded that the Shogunate pay the an indemnification sumof 100,000 pounds – a staggering amount of money in 1862 – and that theSatsuma daimyo pay 25,000 additional pounds, in addition to executingthe samurais who had attacked Richardson’s party. The Shogunate paidtheir portion, but by this point, the Bakufu were in no position ofauthority whatsoever to reign in rebellions forces, particularly theincreasingly powerful Satsuma. The daimyo flatly refused to complywith Alcock’s demands and the Shogunate was unable to compel theSatsuma to obey their orders. Alcock was enraged, and finally reactingunder pressure from other foreign powers to take action, the Britishnaval fleet shelled the city of Kagoshima in August 1863, destroying asubstantial portion of the city as well as three of the Satsuma clan’sships, though miraculously, only a few Japanese were killed. This wasan immensely unpopular move back home in England, and Alcock was one ofthe individuals blamed for the debacle. He was eventually replaced in1865 by Sir Harry Parkes.

One of the most important Western figures in all of modern Japanese history happened to arrive, by coincidence or synchronicity, one week before the Namanugi Incident. He was a 19-year old student interpreternamed Ernest Satow. Mr. Satow was cut from the same mold as HenryHeusken, in the sense that he did not possess condescending, pitying,or superioristic attitudes towards the Japanese, personality flaws thatplagued the vast majority of Westerners who had lived and worked inJapan in the years before Satow arrived. He took an active interest inthe intricacies of Japanese culture and mastered the immenselydifficult Japanese language (no small feat given that at the time ofhis arrival in 1862, there was no such thing as a Japanese-Englishdictionary!); he was arguably the first serious Western scholar ofJapanese literature, and amassed a stunning collection Japanese books.He more than intermingled with the Japanese people – he took acommon-law Japanese wife, Takeda Kane, with whom he had two sons, namedEitaro and Hisayoshi. He became an intimate confidant of the keypower players who engineered the transition from the Tokugama Shogunateto the restoration of the rule of the Emperor, and in fact became amajor power player himself in this process, as we will explore later.To this day, he is still a celebrity in Japan, though ironically, he isby comparison largely forgotten in England.

Satow was on board one of the British warships that bombed the Satsuma city of Kagoshima, and memorialized the occasion in his widely admired 1921 book A Diplomat in Japan: A Diplomat in Japan: The inner history of the Critical Years in the Evolution of Japan. (Though not present during the Namanugi Incident, Satow was of the opinion that Richardson and his party were not at fault, as he narrates in the book:“They were now ordered to turn back, and as they were wheeling their horses in obedience, were suddenly set upon by several armed men belonging to the train, who hacked at them with the sharp-edged heavy words.” (Satow, 1921, p. 48)) Even at this early juncture in his diplomatic career, Satow’s personal feelings about the disproportional savagery of the British punishment were indicative of his sympathy for the Japanese. Satow claims that during the bombardment, Vice AdmiralKuper knew exactly how much damage was being inflicted on Kagoshima and seemed to almost be enjoying himself. “…rockets were fired with the object of burning the town… Admiral Kuper took credit for the destruction.” (Satow, 1921, p. 84) Satow then goes on, in the book. to make a specific point of agreeing in retrospect with Lord Bright from the British House of Commons, saying he “called attention to this unnecessary act of severity.” (p. 85)

Details of Final collapse of the shogunate …

Satow’s role in shogunate collapse, as pseudonymous author of editorials in Japanese newspapers in which he boldy asserts that the shogunate was never the rightful heir to the rulership of japan and that it is time for the emperor to step back in.

…1867 as the Shogunate was about to collapse, people took to the streets across the nation in a massive, collective expression of relief tinged with exhaustion. “Some difficulty was experienced in making our way through the crowds of people in flaming red garments dancing and shouting over and over ‘ii ja nai ka.’ [loosely translated as, ‘oh, what the hell!’] They were so much taken up with their dancing that we passed along almost unnoticed.” (Satow, 1921, p. 252)

Meiji restoration, Satow’s relationship with the new imperial court / government.

Changes in Japanese society.

Satow’s departure from japan.

Historical ramifications into war with Russia and into aggressive Japanese behavior in the 20th century.


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