Breaking Open Japan: Commodore Perry, Lord Abe, and American Imperialism in 1853

Breaking Open Japan: Commodore Perry, Lord Abe, and American Imperialism in 1853

George Feifer

Language: English

Pages: 416

ISBN: 0060884320

Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub


On July 14, 1853, the four warships of America's East Asia Squadron made for Kurihama, 30 miles south of the Japanese capital, then called Edo. It had come to pry open Japan after her two and a half centuries of isolation and nearly a decade of intense planning by Matthew Perry, the squadron commander. The spoils of the recent Mexican Spanish–American War had whetted a powerful American appetite for using her soaring wealth and power for commercial and political advantage.

Perry's cloaking of imperial impulse in humanitarian purpose was fully matched by Japanese self–deception. High among the country's articles of faith was certainty of its protection by heavenly power. A distinguished Japanese scholar argued in 1811 that "Japanese differ completely from and are superior to the peoples of...all other countries of the world."

So began one of history's greatest political and cultural clashes.

In Breaking Open Japan, George Feifer makes this drama new and relevant for today. At its heart were two formidable men: Perry and Lord Masahiro Abe, the political mastermind and real authority behind the Emperor and the Shogun. Feifer gives us a fascinating account of "sealed off" Japan and shows that Perry's aggressive handling of his mission had far reaching consequences for Japan – and the United States – well into the twentieth if not twenty–first century.

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shot.”92 Underlining his disinclination to seek conquest, writers would draw a vital distinction between his mission and European ones. Occupation of others’ lands smacked of colonialism, deeply repugnant to the sensibilities of Americans, who had liberated themselves from England only late in the previous century. Harvard’s Samuel Eliot Morison, whose Old Bruin (1967) remains the standard biography of Perry, despite—or because of—its scarce mention of Japanese feelings except supposed

aggrieved by the fate of Charles Richardson, the young Englishman in the group of reckless riders who, in 1862, encountered the noble procession on the highway near Yokohama. The daimyo whose retainers slew him was a member of the powerful Shimazu house, rulers of the southern Satsuma han that dominated and exploited Okinawa. Despite some accommodation with the Tokugawas after failing to support them in the sixteenth century, the Shimazus remained their hereditary enemies, as did the lords of the

praise as invaluable. With some exaggeration of his own, a contemporary would claim he “contributed more than any other person to the opening of Japan.” The former fisherman indeed served as an ambassador—under the circumstances, an extraordinary one—in 1853–1854. His assurance that upright, generous America had utterly no interest in invading or conquering would impress Tokugawa opinion makers enough to aid the cause of, essentially, submission to Perry, on which Abe had counted. The Chief

the closed country. Together with a small but growing number of similarly well-educated thinkers and leaders, the gracious young lord was open to and curious about thoughts of the outside world. Another openness was to advice from ordinary folk, even near strangers, like shopkeepers. No public voice then advocated democracy, in the sense of government of or even for the people—the great majority of whom didn’t even have surnames, as noted.21 Devotion to rule by the small samurai minority

father.”25 From the “throne” of his flagship, the magisterial “autocrat” on his “glorious mission” would overcome Okinawan “chicanery and diplomatic treachery.” For his part, Perry, wary of “those contemptible acts of stupid folly . . . sometimes exhibited by foolhardy religionists in foreign countries,”26 was initially cautious about Bettelheim. “The missionary, however meritorious he might be, seemed to promise but little for the extension of Christianity in the island.”27 Other American

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