Japan and US: Commerce and Competition Origins of an East-West Trade Link

By Christine L. Compston. Christine L. Compston is a liberal arts fellow . | The Christian Science Monitor, February 8, 1991 | Go to article overview

Japan and US: Commerce and Competition Origins of an East-West Trade Link


Christine L. Compston. Christine L. Compston is a liberal arts fellow ., The Christian Science Monitor


THE Treaty of Kanagawa, signed on March 31, 1854, was the opening wedge for trade between the United States and Japan. Providing for more humane treatment of American sailors shipwrecked off the coast of Japan and permitting limited trade by Americans at the relatively inaccessible ports of Shimoda and Hakodate, the treaty was a modest achievement when taken at face value, as the American press was quick to observe. But Matthew Calbraith Perry, the man responsible for the agreement, viewed his expedition and the resulting treaty quite differently.

In his "Narrative of the Expedition of an American Squadron to the China Seas and Japan ...," the commodore insisted that "new relations of trade once commenced ... could not, in the progress of events, fail effectually and forever not only to break up the old restrictive policy, and open Japan to the world, but must also lead generally to liberal commercial treaties." Japan, he claimed, promised to be "amongst the most important of eastern nations, with which a profitable trade will be established."

"Yankees in the Land of the Gods" confirms the accepted explanation that the American expedition to Japan was motivated by the desire to assure the safety of American sailors, to set up coaling stations for steamships engaged in trade with China, and to establish new markets for American goods. Peter Wiley provides a convincing argument that the expansionist policies of the 1840s and Perry's desire to enhance the stature of the US Navy should also be taken into account, along with the commodore's personal ambition.

The book is based not only on the official record of the expedition commissioned by Perry, but also on the personal memoirs of other Americans and both public and private Japanese accounts. The result is a sophisticated examination of this historical event.

The documents reveal disagreements among the decisionmakers in Japan as to what course to take in dealing with the Americans. Japan's government, an inefficient and ineffective bureaucracy that had evolved during centuries of feudal rule, was totally unprepared for any encounter with the West.

Political leaders - unsure of their own authority, disturbed by overtures from Russia, and confused by the refusal of the Americans to comply with ancient customs and laws - consulted both the emperor and leading merchants during the negotiations with the Americans. The advice of the merchants prevailed: Opening of trade with the West would stimulate the Japanese economy, temper domestic unrest, and introduce technology important to defense as well as manufacturing. …

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