A 'Valuable Perspective' on Early U.S.-Japan Relations

By Falk, Stanley L. | Army, January 2007 | Go to article overview

A 'Valuable Perspective' on Early U.S.-Japan Relations


Falk, Stanley L., Army


A 'Valuable Perspective' on Early U.S.-Japan Relations Breaking Open Japan: Commodore Perry, Lord Abe, and American Imperialism in 1853. George Feifer. Smithsonian Books. 389 pages; maps; illustrations; index; $25.95.

At the entrance to Tokyo Bay, a few miles down the coast from Yokosiika, stands a tall, impressive monolith commemorating the landing of Commodore Matthew C. Perry, U. S. Navy, on July 14, 1853. This monument, argues George Feifer, belies the strong Japanese resentment of Perry's forceful intrusion, not only in 1853 but also for many years thereafter. Unlike most accounts of the Perry mission, Breaking Open japan focuses heavily on the Japanese reaction to it and on its subsequent effect on Japanese attitudes. Feifer's detailed, intriguing narrative, with a provocative conclusion, adds considerably to our understanding of this important event and its aftermath.

The author has written a number of books, including a powerful and moving account of the World War II battle for Okinawa. He has done considerable research in published sources for Breaking Open luptut, but his sparse documentation is frustrating and unsatisfactory. The book is also considerably overwritten, densely packed with extraneous or repetitive material that makes for somewhat tedious reading. Despite these drawbacks, this is a welcome addition to what has previously been written about the opening of Japan.

When Perry arrived, Japan seemed a strange, xenophobic land with a peculiar culture, value system and hierarchical class organization. Its rigid and repressive political structure was stressed by internal contradictions and the first signs of uneasy yearnings for change. Yet militating against any change were the severe restrictions against allowing outside influences to affect Japan's internal scheme of things. The country had been closed to foreigners for some 200 years, a tightly enforced isolation that drove away outsiders and prevented citizens from leaving the country. A few small, tightly regulated trade arrangements with Chinese, Korean and Dutch merchants were the only foreign contacts permitted.

Within Japan, the emperor was revered but without much authority, a regal symbol who lived in splendid semi-isolation in the ancient capital of Kyoto. The actual ruler of the country was the shogun, the military leader whose forebears had unified Japan and who exercised real power from Edo (today's Tokyo). Yet even his reach was somewhat limited by the daiim/o, the feudal lords who maintained considerable control over their own domains despite their ostensible allegiance to both shogun and emperor.

Within this rigid structure in 1853, there existed the first stirrings of opposition to its strictures. There were some Japanese who sought change to better their economic status, others in order to enhance their social position. And despite the country's isolation, developments outside its borders were not unknown, especially the ability of Western powers to have their way with China. Thus other Japanese saw advantages in acquiring Western knowledge and technology and in relaxing the reclusive orthodoxy that excluded it.

Neither Perry nor those who had preceded him knew or understood much about Japan's peculiar internal makeup. Yet it was not simply curiosity that drove foreigners to Japanese shores. For more than half a century Western mariners, missionaries and merchants had been seeking unsuccessfully to establish trade relations, to rescue their countrymen shipwrecked on Japanese shores and to safely return Japanese castaways in Western hands. Japan remained closed, but the United States was increasingly anxious to open this strange but beckoning land. It was particularly important to do so now, with American whalers operating in Japanese waters and merchant sailors on their way to China needing intermediate ports of call and coaling stations. In addition, the potential Japanese market for American goods was an irresistible lure. …

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