An Island on Overdrive

Japan – The Meiji Restoration – 1850 > 1910


            Throughout the near-three-century Tokugawa Shogunate, Japan had been fairly successful keeping itself just out of reach of Western influence. Their policy of only dealing with Dutch merchants out of the port of Nagasaki meant that they were able to stay relatively abreast of the comings and goings of the European traders, without having to deal with the economic and social consequences of allowing Westerners access to their world.

            But as each decade passed, and as the British, French, Russian and US ships grew more bold in their trading habits, it became harder and harder to ignore their presence.  U.S whalers were increasingly seen off shore and once in awhile the odd shipwrecked crew would make its way to the Japanese coast (only to be promptly jailed and expelled as soon as possible).  Western envoys kept trying to convince the shogun to reconsider his stance, but time and again, these diplomats were sent off empty-handed.  Japan wanted to be left alone. 

            But the West wouldn’t give up.  Japan had to be opened.  Its strategic location made it the perfect stop for repairs and supplies, and no one could ignore the advantages of being the first country granted the opportunity to tap that market.  The United Statesof America stepped up to the plate first.  Once the labyrinth of railroads made the US a transcontinental behemoth, the Far East was finally within their grasp.  The mountains of finished goods streaming continuously out of the factory gates of Illinois, New York and Pennsylvania could now make it to the ports of San Francisco and out to the sea in mere weeks.  The factory beasts just needed more “willing” buyers.  But in the mid-1800s, Japan wasn’t terribly attractive as a market.  They remained more or less a feudal society with limited manufacturing capability and few inhabitants with enough money to make trade worthwhile.  But they had potential.  Even if they might not immediately be the ideal market for America’s manufacturing leftovers, Japan could fill in nicely as a strategic port at the gate to the East.  Once China was opened, the need for some rest stops to break up the months-long trip became glaringly apparent.  Hawaii and the Philippines would unenthusiastically assume that role at the end of the 19th century, but in 1852, the President of the United States (Millard Fillmore) wanted Japan.  He called on Commodore Matthew C. Perry to lead a fleet of America’s finest ships to encourage Japan to possibly reconsider their stance on international trade.

            In 1853, leading a force of four black-hulled ships, Perry arrived at Tokyo Bay and politely asked if he could drop off a letter with the emperor.  He was denied.  Perry then introduced the Japanese to his 65 cannons, not-so-subtly alluding to the destruction he could hastily rain down on defenseless Edo.  He then courteously asked again if he could drop off a letter.  This time, the Japanese agreed.  Perry delivered the letter which started off “Great and good friend…I am desirous that our two countries should trade with each other, for the benefit both of Japan and the United States” and in case a whaling or fishing vessel should be wrecked “that our unfortunate people should be treated with kindness” and that it would be just lovely if “vessels should be allowed to stop in Japan and supply themselves with coal, provisions, and water.” Perry then left Japan, letting the Emperor know he’d be returning in about a year to preferably hear the emperor’s favorable reaction.  And…oh by the way…did I already show you the guns on our ships?

            Perry then sailed to Macao, China, picked up a few more ships and returned a year later.  During this sojourn, Japan pondered their next move.  Resist the Americans and become slaves.  There was no way the Japanese could summon...