The Currents of War: A New History of American-Japanese Relations, 1899-1941

The Currents of War: A New History of American-Japanese Relations, 1899-1941

The Currents of War: A New History of American-Japanese Relations, 1899-1941

The Currents of War: A New History of American-Japanese Relations, 1899-1941

Excerpt

Commodore Matthew Perry was not a superstitious man. If he were, he would not have decided to follow the course to Edo Bay charted by earlier, failed US expeditions to Japan. Since 1790, some two dozen American vessels and countless others from Europe had visited the secluded islands. The Japanese, however, had turned away all expeditions because they threatened the shogun’s self-imposed policy of isolation. During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the islands’ great feudal landed families, the daimyo, had waged a brutal and protracted civil war for control of the nation before Nobunaga Oda all but unified the country in 1580. Several factors contributed to Oda’s success, foremost among them the skillful use of Western technology, which allowed him to impose his will on the other, less fortunate families. Oda was murdered, however, before he could cement his control over the country, so for another decade the great families vied to rule Japan. Finally, with its victory in the epoch-making battle of Sekigahara in October 1600, the Tokugawa clan began its 268-year reign. Determined to isolate Japan from the outside world and deny the other powerful feudal families access to the kind of Western technology that had proved so vital to men like Oda, the Tokugawa instituted a strict policy of isolation. Perry had come to Japan to tear down this wall of seclusion.

Perry’s first glimpse of the shore revealed little owing to the typically dense July haze, but he believed that he knew what awaited him. The Japanese would resist him as they had the USS Morrison in 1837 when that vessel arrived in the islands carrying shipwrecked Japanese sailors. More recently, the Japanese had defied the US Asiatic Squadron, and a Japanese sailor knocked its commander, Commodore James Biddle, to the deck during an altercation. Despite this disheartening résumé of failure, President Millard Fillmore had decided to send Perry on yet another mission, this one to open Japan to American commerce and to arrange for a permanent diplomatic presence.

Perry felt certain that he had devised a successful strategy for dealing with the sure-to-be-truculent Japanese. The key to success, he believed, lay in the story of an 1849 expedition sent to Kyushu, the southernmost of the Japanese main islands, which succeeded in securing the release of seventeen stranded seamen. Japanese authorities had attempted to drive the vessel, the USS Preble, from the harbor by marshaling nearby forces. However, when . . .

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